Saturday, December 25, 2010

the lights of home

On our drive home earlier this week, on the evening of the 21st, our longest day here in the southern hemisphere, we passed through, as usual, the town of Mt. Frere on the N2 highway. It was twilight, and a beautiful, huge--"the biggest I've ever seen"--moon had risen over the hills. To our surprise, the natural light of the moon was not the only light breaking through the gathering darkness; the poles of streetlights were adorned with Christmas-light displays. The sight was amusing for at least two reasons.

First, in a region, the Transkei, in the province of Eastern Cape, known to be South Africa's most corrupt and under-serviced, someone had apparently taken great care to decorate for the festive season. The potholes of Eastern Cape may never be filled; the proposed refurbishing of the Mthatha airport delayed forever; the schools in disarray; the hospitals under-stocked; but the lights, the beautiful lights, will shine for Christmas.

Second, many of the displays themselves seem out-of-place on this, the African continent. What has a sleigh, for example, to do with a land that rarely--and never in December--sees snow? Or Santa, that fat white man from the North who rides his sleigh through it? Or Frosty--the snowman?

There were the religious-themed lights as well. These, certainly, are not confined to climate or geography. And for me, a midwestern boy whose family used to search out the best neighborhood Christmas-light displays in our small Kansas town, the lights of Mt. Frere were, religious or not, a little taste of home.

Merry Christmas!


Thursday, December 23, 2010

what is a Mennonite?

In engaging in conversations over the last several weeks with fellow North Americans living or traveling in southern Africa, I have been struck anew by the reality of a truly global church. Students of mission will have been aware of the global church, if they have not experienced it firsthand, through the writings of such scholars as Philip Jenkins and Lamin Sanneh. Even so, those reminders cannot really prepare North Americans to comprehend the reality of a global church; only direct exposure over time can do that.

One of the evidences of my slowness of mind and heart to understand the global church is the field of images and connotations which come to my mind when I hear the word “Mennonite.” For if I truly understood the reality that the church is global, then my first associations with “Mennonite” would not include, as regards worship, for example, four-part hymnody, tightly-managed orders of service, and rather un-emotive preaching.

I spoke recently with a leader of the Mennonite Church in North America who was traveling on behalf of Mennonite World Conference on a teaching tour throughout the global Mennonite family. He spoke of his conversation with a pastor in a certain country who runs a “megachurch” which worships in a “state-of-the-art” stadium facility, is a “mover and shaker” in the civic arena, including with plans to “reclaim land from the sea” in order to build an alternative “Christian city”, complete with plans to attract a “Disney World” on the land—all under the name “Mennonite”. Though the resume sounds to my “Mennonite” ears more like that of a Charismatic or televangelist, to the people of that country it is that of a “Mennonite”.

The example is but one illustration from the globe that, from a North American perspective, we can no longer take for granted our definition of “Mennonite”. For millions of people across the globe, both insiders and outsiders to the tradition, “Mennonite” does not mean what North Americans with generations-old membership in the tradition take it to mean.

Much, in fact, that has been established in different “Mennonite” traditions may be distasteful one to the other. “Mennonites” from one reality may be more comfortable worshipping with Christians from other denominations whose religious culture seems more like their own. To take one example, I spoke to a North American worker last week who worships with a baptist congregation in Zambia rather than with the local Anabaptist (the broader tradition from which the Mennonites come) church. Yet, if all “Mennonites” have a stake in the name—as we do—we will be concerned about what kind of a witness we are giving for Jesus and the kingdom of God. That means that—in spite of the often vast differences between “Mennonite” cultures—we, as members of the global church, as members one of another—must push beyond our particular, cherished forms of religiosity to find the faith common to all that lies beneath the surface. Such pushing beyond will take commitment, time, and energy, and will entail many setbacks. But if we persevere, if we stay in relationship, if we give and receive counsel from the word of God, we will experience together life’s purest joy—the presence of God in our midst.

Here then is a call to cross the boundaries of human difference, to participate in “mission”, to engage the global church.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Christ and culture

Currently we are at a retreat with workers from Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). In our input sessions, we are reflecting on the meaning of culture, which has brought me to some observations on how the sessions are being conducted.

Our group itself is multicultural; MCC employs Africans in Africa, not merely, as in previous eras, westerners working in Africa. Beyond that, of course, even the North Americans and the Africans within themselves are diverse. That being said, it is still difficult to get away from—even, or especially, when we think we are being sensitive to cultural differences—exacerbating those cultural differences. For example, I have observed that in our comparisons of “Western” and “African” cultures and worldviews, the westerners tend to define as culture for Africans those practices that seem different, exotic, from their own. From there, having accepted the exotic as authentic African cultural practices, the westerners move to try to validate or understand that which they have accepted—perhaps putting a Christian spin on what they believe to be African traditions—and then move to congratulate themselves when they believe they have successfully done so. The problem, however, may be that what the westerners believe is culture for Africa, defined on the basis of difference, is not—in the eyes of the African participants—truly African culture as they recognize it in their own countries of origin. Rather, what the westerners believe to be African culture may, in fact, be a perversion of culture. As a result, the whole process of westerners trying to rationalize certain African cultural practices is misguided from the beginning because what they see as authentic culture may not be culture at all.

The particular example of which I speak is the issue of “sexual cleansing” which we have been prompted to discuss in small groups. Our presenter gave us an explanation of the practice in “Africa” as he understands it—one which was not recognized by the African participants. Briefly, according to the explanation, “sexual cleansing” refers to a man, perhaps the brother of a deceased, sleeping with his widow, in order to “cleanse” the widow of the dead man’s spirit (such a tradition becomes highly problematic in a society ravaged by HIV-AIDS). The white workers, of course, almost all said that this phenomenon was in their host countries. Some of their understandings were based on reports from and conversations with actual Africans—so we are not denying here that “sexual cleansing” does occur in some places on the continent. The bigger question, however, is whether it is valid to see “sexual cleansing” as culture at all—or whether, since it was not recognized by the Africans in our group, as merely a perversion of culture.

I use the word “perversion” here, not to imply that culture should be pristine and unchanging; then the “perversion” would be simply the deviation, irrespective of moral judgments, from an original. No, I use “perversion” to imply that, in a setting where people of ethical concern and commitment sit down to discuss culture together, it is important not to bless as true culture that which is not. For Christians—people of profound ethical concern—it is important to define as true culture only that which conforms to the life of Christ—and not to cause offense to our African brothers and sisters in Christ by defining as their culture that which is spiritually-ethically offensive to them on the basis of their own faith in Christ (The reverse, African Christians assuming that the culture of western Christians is professional wrestling, daytime soap operas, or the support of “holy wars” against Islam, may be equally offensive). In all this, then, there seems to be an implicit sense that, while the west has a culture largely shaped by Christianity (perhaps decreasingly so), African culture in the eyes of the west is still more shaped by its pre-Christian past. In fact, Christianity has, and has had, a major stake in African culture for generations now, so that what anthropologists might claim as true African culture is scarcely recognizable to Africans themselves. At the very least, it seems, Christian Africans do not want to cede their culture to the domain of what is exotic to westerners. They seem to want—as do ethically-minded westerners—a truly humanizing, dignifying definition of culture.

That, it seems to me, is the culture which we all seek, and the culture around which we might rally.


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

no other head

Yesterday, on my scripture blog, I reflected on the claims of the Christ hymn of Colossians 1:15-20, specifically on the claim embedded in its center that "he is the head of the body, the church" (v. 18). That Christ is the "head of the body, the church" is particularly relevant in light of much pastor-speak I have heard in this country about headship. For example, Charismatic pastors are particularly keen on emphasizing their importance in/over the church. I have heard on a number of occasions that Satan particularly targets pastors because to destroy them is to scatter the flock that they lead. I have been a part of prayer services in which a visiting pastor brings the pastor of the congregation up front to be prayed for precisely on the basis of this rationale, that Satan is out to get him more than others. That the evil one would target the pastor seems, in these presentations, almost as a validation of the individual in the role of pastor, as if without it either the pastor initiating the action or the pastor being prayed over is not a legitimate pastor. Another variation which I once heard of this theme is more explicit. "If someone wants to kill a snake," the proverb goes, "he does not whack its tail, but rather its head." The analogy, of course, was that the pastor of the church is the head of the snake which the evil one tries to destroy in order to kill the church.

There is something to learn in all this. Pastors matter a great deal. Good leadership is as "yeast leavening the whole batch of dough" for good, while bad leadership is a leavening of the dough for bad (1 Cor. 5:6; Mt. 13:33). It should be a topic of discussion in churches which are especially suspicious of hierarchy whether the pastor--if he or she is even afforded such a title--is recognized as a person blessed with special gifts for leading a people toward "the measure of the full stature of Christ" (Eph. 4:13). It is likewise cause for concern, on the other hand, if the biblically-legitimized role of pastor becomes cause for seeing the pastor of the local church as having the same measure of authority of the one alone whom our text proclaims is "the head of the body, the church". In such a situation, the pastor is feared as though God, and, in effect, becomes a mediator between "God and humankind"--between the one head and the body--where none but Christ Jesus is intended (1 Tim. 2:5). In such a case, the body's growth in realizing the fullness of God's spiritual gifts to many is stunted in deference to the one posing as head in place of Christ.

If Christ is truly recognized as head, however, the body will not fear even though its pastor be removed. If the body knows Christ as head, and not a mere human (though Christ himself shares our humanity), it will rejoice, though it suffers, knowing that the One who fills the church also suffered yet rose from the dead. If Christ is head, the one who died and was raised to life, not even "the gates of hell will prevail against the church" (Mt. 16:18); they did not prevail against the head--they shall not prevail against his body.

The proverb of the snake is therefore misapplied; there is no head which can be struck by which the body may die. Rather, at the appointed time, let the pastor be removed, and " 'let another take his position of overseer' " (Acts 1:20).

The pastor who knows that his days are numbered, who has learned to "count his days" (Psa 90:12), who knows who she is in light of her Creator, is the one to lead God's people toward the fullness of Christ.


Monday, November 15, 2010

christmas in south africa

Shalom Mennonite Church has asked us for information about Christmas in South Africa. For us, Christmas is a time when we try to simulate our own culture's Christmas traditions but adapt them to South Africa and to summer. We buy a tree every year that can serve as a Christmas tree (gardenias have been our favourites),

Siya, Moses, and Isaac bringing in the Christmas tree

Jesse under the decorated tree

we decorate Christmas cookies,

and we hang stockings.

This year will be the third year that we have spent with our friend Melanie Quinn, a Mennonite missionary in Botswana. We cook a fairly traditional meal although one year we did have roast warthog leg and we are able to have vegetables fresh from our garden since it is summer. Here we are with our own Christmas tradition of the "stinky meal" on Christmas eve: chips and salsa, stinky cheeses, salami and other stinky things.

It is true that we spend a lot of time at our friend's pool--a Christmas tradition that we quite like.

We have asked some friends about traditions here in kwaXhosa (the place of the Xhosa people). The two biggest special things at Christmas are that everyone gets new clothes and that a lot of people repaint their house. The colours of houses in the rural areas are pink, green, blue, turquoise, and yellow. Some have a black strip around the bottom and this would also be refreshed for Christmas. For weeks before Christmas, you see people leaving town with big buckets of paint, often carrying them on their heads. Can you pick out the different colours of houses in these pictures? What colour house is in the bottom picture that I didn't list?

On Christmas day, kids get into their new clothes and then go in groups to the houses in their area. At each house they are given something to eat. At some it is a full meal of chicken, samp and beans or rice, and vegetables. At others they will get sugary milky tea and biscuits. Some houses will give them chips and sweets. Two things that were traditionally done to make Christmas special were that curry powder (called "Rajah") was added to the rice to make it yellow and that kids got jam on their bread. Even now when these things are everyday occurrences, they are sure to be done for Christmas.

Food cooking at a rural Xhosa homestead

At Isaac and Moses' old preschool, they did a Christmas play every year complete with donkey, shepherds, wise men, and gifts. Here is the year in which Isaac was a wise man and Moses was a shepherd. At the end they sing the chorus "oh come let us adore him" in English and in Xhosa. In Xhosa, the words are "Yizani nibulise. Yizani nibulise. Yizani nibulise. UKrestu Inkosi"



the righteousness of God revealed

In the “Principal’s Report” that I presented to our Annual General Meeting of Bethany Bible School (BBS) on Friday night, I concluded by describing 2010 as a "good and stable" year at BBS. The flip-side of stability in 2010, of course, was the upheaval of 2009—a year in which a conflict arose among members of our Committee and opened up fault lines in our student body as well. Nevertheless, we entered 2010 having restored a measure of peace—the product of a special gathering last December to honor the lifetime service of the particular Committee member who had been offended by the rest of the Committee. Although, in spite of our efforts, that member and those who followed him did not attend in 2010, we remained in friendly contact with him and he continued, in some form, to honor the work of the school; as a sign of his goodwill, he continued to refer students to our office for study materials or collect them himself. This arrangement indeed seemed “good and stable” and we were not holding our breath for anything more.

Something more, however, came last weekend. On the night before the closing conference weekend for the year was to begin, our vice-chairman received a call from a woman, one of the members who had stayed away in protest (or while wounds healed) at the perceived slight of her leader. Her call, however, was not a call to arms; rather, it was a simple notification that she would be attending the conference. That in itself was enough to stir our Committee, fearful of her reasons for choosing to attend after a long absence. The woman made good on her word, arriving on Friday afternoon.

As the Committee gathered for a short meeting following our oral exams over the year’s lessons, we decided to call the woman to the office in order to hear her intentions. She said that she had none—other than simply to return to the school. Although this was great news, it presented us with a new dilemma.

Every year, BBS lends its own graduation ceremony to two sister Bible Schools from Cape Town who share a common constituency (independent churches, least formally-educated church leaders) and mission (to educate such leaders). These sister schools offer their lessons in correspondence; as a result, they have students in our area—some of whom are also BBS students—who come to our site as the nearest place where they might receive recognition for their studies upon completion of them. Three of the last four years (including this one), we have also had at least one official representative of these schools at our graduation. Because this is a significant event in the life of those who graduate, they are often accompanied by guests who wish to share the party with them—a party for which BBS foots the bill. As a result, the Committee has had to establish registration costs for our graduation conference appropriate to the level of participation in our school throughout the year. Students who were on our roll in 2010 would pay the normal fee of R70 for the weekend; guests would pay an amount more reflective (yet still a good deal) of the cost it actually takes to sleep and feed a person for an entire weekend.

The problem, of course, in the situation of the woman who came back, was that she was once among us but then estranged; were we—to employ the biblical categories—to treat her as a Jew or as a Gentile? As a Committee, we were, in our hearts, inclined to treat her as one of us; we desired her return, and the return of all our brothers and sisters who left us in 2009. Even so, we had grown in our understanding as a Committee to be seen as a people who “stick by our word” for the overall health and functioning of the school. Too often in the past, we had made decisions in meetings only to set them aside under pressure from certain individuals who liked to complain. Yet it is the very “rule of law” which guards against individuals taking advantage of the whole and establishes trust in the whole. That trust, in turn, leads to growth. To summarize, on the one hand we were keen to uphold our commitment to love/grace/mercy; on the other hand, we were committed to justice, to respect for the honor/dignity of every human being which is commensurate with a sense of fairness—that one is being treated as the other. Thus, if we could not be seen in the eyes of others to make an exception for our sister, neither could we be seen by our sister and our God to withhold our grace. And if we could not deny her grace, neither could we deny the honor we were trying to uphold in the whole and, in effect, in every part as well.

Still, the decision of whether or not to treat our sister as an outsider was an easy enough one on the basis of the clear communication of our principles; if we simply explained to her that we were treating her the same as every other person who had not attended in 2010, she might understand and gladly pay the required fee. The problem, however, was that the woman had left home having budgeted for only the members’ fee of R70 plus her transport to and from. If she was going to sleep over and pay for meals, she would need to come up with more.

Initially, the Committee decided to do justice to their sense of honor rather than to their sense of mercy. We explained to the woman that she could pay the night’s fee but would be on her own for meals. She sighed heavily under her burden and minutes of silence ensued.

After she had left, one of the women on the Committee spoke up.

“Why did we not ask her to leave and then make a decision and call her back? Did you hear what she said? She said, ‘I didn’t know we were still fighting.’ We must not be seen to be fighting with anyone. We must be God’s messengers. We must only do righteousness.”

The same thought had dawned on me while our sister had still been with us in the room. Confirmed now by one of our Committee members, it was as the voice of God.

“What if we the Committee paid the rest of her fees out of our own pockets?”

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy,” we all said together, remembering Jesus’ words which were one of the answers from the oral exams earlier that day (Mt 5:7).

We called her back and told her of our new decision—which she embraced.

But whereas our first decision had been weighted toward upholding a sense of honor, our second decision was neither honor over mercy, nor mercy over honor. Rather, honor and mercy, dignity and love, justice and grace, embraced as one, indivisible unity. The Committee neither lowered its standard of justice for all, serving the cause of love, nor denied its desire for mercy, serving the same. The Committee both set and fulfilled its own standards for the sake of the other. It both set and paid the price on behalf of the woman. In doing so, the woman was restored to our fellowship. So perhaps will others be who hear her report of righteousness.

In fact, the old man, her leader, for the first time in more than a year, was back at BBS the next day—seated in a place of honor on graduation day.


the preaching vocation

Mama Faniso is a "Bible Woman" in her Methodist church and serves on the executive committee of Bethany Bible School (BBS). She conveys as much in her look as in her words--passion and compassion. Here she is giving the vote of thanks at the BBS graduation on Saturday, 13 November.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

provision through the church

During our partnership council meetings last June, during the time when each of our South African partners shared about his or her respective vision for ministry, Pastor Ntapo of Harvest Time Ministries in Mthatha disclosed that he and his wife had discovered that many of the children who come to the church on Sunday have not yet had a meal on that day. As a result, the Ntapos had resolved—out of their own pockets—to provide a little something for their parishioners to eat every Sunday. We have certainly experienced the sharing of food within the church to be the rule, not the exception, over the last half of this year. Our children, though well-fed at home, share no less in the overflow of the Ntapos’ generosity than the children who do not know—except perhaps with regard to the church—from where their next meal will come. Just as Jesus taught and then fed the five thousand “in a desert place”, so Pastor Ntapo declares, “We have been fed with the spiritual food—now we will be fed with the physical food as well” (Mk. 6:30-44).



Monday, October 25, 2010

exilic work, exilic hope

For three of the last four American autumns/South African springs, we have waited for babies to be born. In November 2007, Levi arrived; last year we welcomed Jesse; this year we waited with our colleagues, Karen and Andrew Suderman, for their daughter, Samantha Joy, born on 19 October. As Anna had committed early on in the pregnancy to serve as Karen’s doula (labor assistant), and as the Sudermans reside a five-hours’ drive from Mthatha in Pietermaritzburg, waiting for Samantha also meant separation for our family. I stayed home in order to see Isaac and Moses through their school schedules; Anna, Levi, and Jesse settled in with the Lindell Detweiler family, colleagues with Mennonite Mission Network, near Pietermaritzburg as they waited with Karen and Andrew. As our separation threatened to enter its third week, we decided to take the boys out of school and to Pietermaritzburg for a few days, convinced that the baby could not delay much longer. In the end, that decision was rewarded: Samantha finally came (the boys missed only four days of school), and, in the meantime, we enjoyed some great team bonding time.

Our period of waiting and separation coincided in the Revised Common Lectionary with the reading of Jeremiah 29:1, 4:7, “the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles . . . whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” (v. 1). In opposition to the lying “prophets and diviners” among the Jewish exiles in Babylon who had prophesied an imminent return to Jerusalem, Jeremiah implored the exiles to “build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (vv. 5-7). In short, Jeremiah was telling the exiles that they must not delay—that they must not wait—to live their lives though they be away from home. Though they be away from the familiar, from that place where they had always lived, from that place which was to them life itself, the exiles would have to learn to live a new life. Only in that living anew would they truly live. Only in seeking the peace of their new surroundings would they themselves find peace.

Though I was the one left behind, I felt no less than Anna “in exile” in my life without her, Levi, and Jesse. Though I was tempted to treat the period as an interim, as a time between the time of union and reunion, I resolved to carry on the regular duties of the home as much as possible. In that sense, then, my particular challenge of living in exile was not so much, as it was for the exiles in Babylon, to build new homes as it was to maintain the home Anna and I had already made together for our family. Indeed, it was only in that maintenance that I would find my peace, in my work that the waiting became bearable. Indeed, without the resolve to work, the passing of each day in the long wait is as the sign of an interminable wait; without work, hope dies.

Karen, the expectant mother, said something similar during her long wait. Each day that passed seemed to decrease “the probability that this baby would actually be born.” But, she said, maintaining her hope, the passing of time actually “increases that probability”. The work of her waiting was eventually rewarded: labor finally came, and, after more work of another intensity, joy—Samantha Joy.

It seems, therefore, most appropriate that the apostle Paul compared the fulfillment of the kingdom of God to a woman in labor (Rom. 8:22; 1 Th. 5:3). As we wait for the arrival of the King, we work so as not to lose hope. Though our work does not bring God’s kingdom, it prepares us to welcome it when he comes. It allows us to experience beforehand, as a woman who finally gives birth, that the kingdom is joy, not fear, and that “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th. 5:9). “Blessed,” then, “is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives” (Mt. 24:46).


Saturday, October 23, 2010

Bethany Bible School Committee at work

The Committee of Bethany Bible School met this weekend.  Our agenda was primarily twofold: oral examinations over the year’s topics; preparation for our November graduation conference.  If the Committee’s performance in the exams is any indicator of how the student body at large will perform next month, this will have been a banner year indeed.  In this, the third year of our new curriculum with oral tests, we have seen vast improvement.  Reasons for that improvement:

1.  Increasing familiarity with the curriculum and method of learning and what is expected of students

2.  The addition this year of a review time following each lesson at conferences

3.  Last but certainly not least, the distribution of a study guide ahead of exams.

The Committee was prepared.  Their answers this year were direct, to-the-point, given with confidence, and, much more often than not, correct.

BBS Committee Meeting Oct 2010 017

planning next month’s graduation

BBS Committee Meeting Oct 2010 020

Committee posing with our certificate of registration as a Non-Profit Organization in South Africa, a status which we received this year

Thursday, October 7, 2010

briefly, on poverty

Last March, Bethany Bible School hosted a workshop on Farming God’s Way as a means to addressing a serious problem in the Eastern Cape: the non-use or mis-use of farmland in a context of hunger and poverty. Indeed, though many people from the rural areas are unemployed, neither are they working their land. While some are all too eager to attribute the problem to “the laziness of the people”, others—such as one friend who provided valuable insights to me over the course of conversations last week—refuse to accept sloth as a thing to be taken for granted in any human being. Rather, he says, causes related to the history of oppression underlie the appearance of laziness. In particular, he noted how enduring is the association of farming with oppression in the people’s minds. Farming was not something the people did for themselves; it was what they did for the white “boss” who reaped from their labor as they eked out a meager existence. The memory of such a life can be a deterrent to forging a new life from the land when one is finally “free” to work his own land. Of course, historical explanations such as these can serve the cause of fatalism no less than racist biological arguments can; nevertheless, they can also aid our understanding, patience, and compassion as we proclaim, against all hopelessness, the dignity of every human being in the sight of God.


Friday, September 24, 2010

our work, explained for kids

One of the ministries we work with is called Bethany Bible School (BBS). BBS is a school for pastors who don't have very much formal education. Many of them have not gone past third grade! Our former chairman had never been to school at all and could not read or write. And yet they are leading churches and want some education to help them do that better. We read the Bible together and talk about what it means. They are all very grateful to get this education and some of them come a long way to school—some from 3 or 4 hours away.

After the group session, we break into small groups to discuss a particular scripture. In this picture, a group was meeting under a particularly nice tree.

Between sessions we always sing. Sometimes we get to dancing and sometimes dancing/running around a circle.

The symbol of the school shows a person rising up from a Bible. We hope that studying the Bible at Bethany Bible School will give them confidence and will help them to rise up from their difficult lives. The slogan of our school is “we are growing in the knowledge of the Son.” What do you think this means? Who is the Son? How do we grow in knowledge?

Mama Dokolwana is wearing a t-shirt with the BBS symbol and the words "Siyakhula ekwazini uNyana" which means "we are growing in the knowledge of the Son."

We also work with a small church called Harvest Time Ministries. This church is made up mostly of kids and youth. Most of the kids come by themselves without their parents. We met the dad of two of the kids once and he said that whenever his kids hear our car, they run out the door because they know that church must be starting! Church usually lasts about three hours and often the kids sit still for the whole thing. They usually have Sunday School before the service so they are often there for 5 hours on a Sunday! Sometimes the kids leave for the sermon and go play outside. One time there was a bull roaming around outside the church and all the kids had a good time running away from it. It wasn't a dangerous bull but it was still fun.

In this picture a lot of the church members are standing outside the church building. Most of the kids are not in this picture.

But here are a bunch of the kids, singing a song for the whole church. They perform as a choir every week.


marbles, part 1

Isaac and his friends at school like to play marbles. At break time, they find a suitable dust patch and proceed to play. It is an incredibly complex game with almost incomprehensible rules and its own language. I'm sure that each school and group of kids plays it differently but this is a simple version of Isaac and his friends' way of playing.
  • Up to six people can play. The goal is to hit another player's marble three times.
  • You begin by digging a little hole in the dirt or grass.
  • Each person announces their position by calling "firstys", "secondys", "thirdys", etc...
  • You begin with each person shooting their marble as near to the hole as possible. Whoever is closest gets to go first. The order then proceeds as first announced.
  • Let's say that I was that closest person. I now get to try to get in the hole. If I get in the hole I am now "poison" and can hit other players and try to take their marbles. On the turn that I get in the hole, I can shoot out on the same turn.
  • I now go after other players.
  • If I hit a player that player then has to "place themself" which means that they choose a place to be shot at. I now get a chance to hit them again. If I hit, I get another chance. If I hit again then I get that marble and that player is out.
  • If I miss, the other player is back in the game but has to go back in the hole to become poison again. If the player was not poison to begin with, they have to get in the hole twice.
I hope that this makes sense. It took me a while to make sense of it. I will add all the calls and how to play with multiple marbles for each player in another post.

Here is Isaac demonstrating the three ways to hold a marble for shooting.

For a big marble, you use an underarm toss like this...

For a small marble, you can hold it in either of the following two ways.

Here the marble rests on the tip of the index finger and is shot by the thumb...

Here the marble rests in the crook of the index finger and is shot by the thumb...


Thursday, September 23, 2010

elwandleni, at the sea

Two weekends ago, we enjoyed a break at Mdumbi, our favorite spot on Eastern Cape's Wild Coast (Indian Ocean).

Mdumbi's wonderful, expansive beach (Can you spot three boys leading the way?)

heading down to the beach

our accommodations at Mdumbi Backpackers

View across the river with Xhosa houses (rondavels) perched on the hills overlooking the sea

tromping through the "squishy" sand in the estuary area

And finally . . . a picture of each boy enjoying their beach holiday



Moses (with crab on "crab island")


Monday, September 20, 2010

the upside-down kingdom

In the middle of the service, Pastor Ntapo stopped in mid-speech, looked out the door, and announced that “the man of God has arrived.” I could not see the door and waited to see who would enter. I expected the headman or another very important pastor—someone important enough to pause the service for. In came a young man from the community, a mentally-challenged man who mumbles to himself throughout the service. He entered and was given a seat of honour at the front of the church.

The service was a special farewell for Erica Yoder who has been living and worshipping with us for two months. After the service we were to share cake and coke to mark the occasion. The steadfast and unshakable rule of this sort of an event is that the men are to be seated at the head table, the married women in chairs around the room, and the young women are to serve all the men and the older women, only themselves eating when everyone else has been served. But this time, Pastor Ntapo seated the young women at the head table. He then seated the young men and the married women to the side. He took no seat for himself.

As the people were being seated we sang “makube njalo"-- “let it be so.”

On earth as it is in heaven.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

tyre rolling

Several churches have asked us for South Africa-related activities to do with Sunday School groups or Vacation Bible School. In an effort to respond to this I will try to regularly include suggestions of children's activities. Here is a first installment.

Moses and Isaac with tyres in 2006
Photo courtesy of Dan Nighswander

A favourite activity at Isaac and Moses' preschool was tyre rolling. The school had a pile of tyres which the kids ran around with at break time. You can use car tyres or bike tyres. An added skill is to push and balance the tyre with a stick. Take a look at Isaac and Moses rolling tyres and then try it yourself.



Monday, September 6, 2010

birthday-cake communion

Yesterday at church we celebrated the 18th birthday of Andisiwe, one of the young women who has become active in the congregation. The idea to celebrate came from Erica Yoder, our American helper these last two months, who has herself become active in our congregation. Erica and Anna baked a cake for Andisiwe which the whole church shared together. Each person got a small piece—with some left over.


The whole celebration time became for me a witness to how community is built within the church. Though the event was ostensibly for one person, Andisiwe, the good things it brought overflowed to all. Though the cake had her name on it, circumstance—one small cake shared among many—required that Andisiwe receive no larger portion than any other person there on that day. Likewise, though we sang to Andisiwe, we went around the room and listened to each person, young and old, inform us of his or her own birthday. One woman did not know her date; yet her very not knowing brought home the importance of the event. In a world of shattered worlds, in which people are searching to know and be known, the unknown woman can have her cake and eat it too—among those who have opened themselves to share the love of Christ. The celebration of the one overflowed with blessings for the many, including, and perhaps especially, for those who are "least" in the world's eyes.

The apostle Paul said something similar in describing the work of Jesus Christ (Rom 5:15). And though Andisiwe was not herself in the position of Christ, the celebration of her birthday within the church hints at the power that the regular celebration of Christ’s “life laid down”, “unto death”, “for many”, has to unite those who “remember” it (Jn 10:18; Php. 2:8; Mk. 14:24; 1 Cor. 11:25). Just as the “unleavened cake” of Christ’s righteous life was prepared for us in his broken body and blood out-poured, so birthday cake on this day became the one “body” through which we expressed our love for one another in the Lord (Ex. 12:14-20; 1 Cor. 10:16-17).


As Erica prepares the cake, the congregation sings (translated), "The name of the Lord be praised"/"Jesus is exalted".


Friday, September 3, 2010

stumbling blocks to transformation

On our way back from Botswana in June, I witnessed a scene that reminded me of how difficult true transformation in South Africa really is.

We had stopped at a Steers (fast food) which was connected to a petrol station to eat lunch. There was a young black man at the table beside us. He had no food but was writing to someone on his cellphone. He got up and went out of the restaurant and over to the petrol station to buy airtime for his cellphone.

While he was gone, a middle-aged white man came and sat at the table that the other man had just vacated. Soon the black man came back and sat in the chair that he had been in and began to activate his airtime. The white man told the black man that he was sitting there first. The black man told the white man that he had been there and just gotten up to buy airtime. The white man protested and the black man got up and left.

It was a heart-breaking scene. Each thought that the other was rude. The white man, valuing personal space, thought that the black man had invaded his. The black man, valuing connection, didn't understand why he would have been asked to leave. Each went away feeling wronged.

While the structures of apartheid have been dismantled and most claim to desire unity, there remain cultural differences that divide. Racism is no longer saying "I don't like him because of the colour of his skin." Racism is an unwillingness to move out of your own culture; an inability to see how someone else might think differently. South Africans will need a lot of grace toward one another to move forward in the building of a nation.


Tuesday, August 31, 2010

"so that the Son of God may be glorified through it"

On Saturday, 21 August, we went with three members of our committee from Bethany Bible School to visit our chairperson and his family at their rural homestead. A few weeks ago, and just before the August BBS conference, one of the committee members phoned to say that the chairperson was "seriously ill" and hospitalized in Mt. Ayliff, the town nearest him (about 130 km from Mthatha). We could not go at the time, though we felt that we should visit him. Later, we received another phone call reporting that he had recovered and was back home, though not well enough yet to attend BBS. Having missed him at the conference, we set out with representatives from the committee to visit him. On that visit, we learned the story of his illness and recovery.

The chairperson, who has diabetes, had passed out, or perhaps died, one day at home. Finding him motionless, his wife began to sing and praise God. In the course of time he revived, after which an ambulance arrived to take him to the hospital. As his wife worshiped in this world, the chairperson, according to his testimony, experienced another. While blacked out, he felt like he was rolling, as if "in a barrel". Then he saw "God with his angels" who told him to "go back" to "finish his work".

In anticipation of our visit, a number of friends and church members had gathered to thank God for bringing the man back to life. "Today salvation has come to this house," said one of the pastors there. Another woman, taking her word from 2 Chronicles 20:15, said, "Do not fear; the battle is not yours but God's". I shared the words of Jesus upon hearing of his friend Lazarus's serious illness: "This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God's glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it" (Jn. 11:4).

Indeed, Jesus' words contain great explanatory power for the experience of our chairperson's illness and recovery; not unlike Lazarus, though dead for awhile, he lived again through the power of God. More importantly, his death-not-unto-death, his life restored, was not for its own sake but "to the glory of God". His "coming back" was for him and his entire household, for those gathered together on that day--and now for us--a confirmation of faith in the God who saves, a revelation of the God who does not "give his glory to any other" (Isa 48:11).

There are other glories, other powers, other gods, on whom the people might have called. They called on the living God--and were saved.


Thursday, August 19, 2010


We got an email in May asking us whether we would like to have a nanny for a few months. Well, how could we say no to that? 2010 has been frustrating for me (Anna) with a baby and a two year old and no place to house the Mennonite household helper of the past 30 years. So this email was an answer to prayer in many ways. We did not yet know in how many ways.

Erica Yoder comes from Clinton Frame Mennonite Church, one of our supporting congregations, and her parents have been long time supporters of mission. She is 21 years old and at a cross roads in her life. She arrived in Mthatha on the 20th of July to stay for two months.

Erica has more than fulfilled all of our hopes for her. In addition to reading to Levi, talking with Moses, doing homework with Isaac, and playing with Jesse, she has gotten involved in the youth group at our little church, befriended our friends, attended Bible study, and generally launched herself into life in Mthatha.

Here are some pictures of Erica pursuing life to its fullest.

Our friend Sim put extensions in Erica's hair. It took two full days but the result has been well worth it. She looks great and everyone turns to see the white girl with extensions.

Erica practiced putting a baby on her back with Levi who is less likely to throw himself off than Jesse is.

Erica and Jesse.

Erica with our pastors, the Ntapos.

At church in Mthatha with Mama Ntapo (right) and some members of a visiting congregation.


Erica and other members of the Harvest Time Ministries Youth Group singing in De Aar.


American old-time religion, South African style

In our last post, I spoke of "coming home" in the Northern Cape to the "old-time religion" of the United States. The videos below contain the most striking example of that from the weekend. This group of young men is called The Friends, and they have an incredible sound.




Wednesday, August 18, 2010

many peoples, one faith: northern cape, part II

After four years of trying to understand the Xhosa-speaking segment of South African culture, the last few months in particular have broadened our perspective on this beautiful and diverse nation. For one weekend last April, and again last weekend, we basked in the glow of the spirituality and hospitality of churches in the Northern Cape Province. The purpose of these visits was to provide teaching on the Anabaptist-Mennonite way of understanding the gospel of Jesus Christ to two interested communities—Grace Community Church (with congregations in Philipstown, Cradock, and Colesburg) and New Beginnings Church in De Aar. In April we met in Philipstown; last weekend we were hosted by the good people of De Aar. Adding to our diversity, a delegation from Harvest Time Ministries, our church home here in Mthatha—and an aspiring Mennonite congregation—also attended.

The weekend was, for us, exceedingly rich—even a homecoming of sorts. By living in Mthatha, I have incorporated many songs and choruses in isiXhosa into my spiritual repertoire. In De Aar, I was surprised, and pleasantly so, to find elements of what in America we might call “the old-time religion.” Our beautiful hosts, David and Lolo Vena, like to listen to, among other things, American southern gospel (Gaither Vocal Band) in their home. Although I find my orientation more in the old gospel hymns of my grandfather and bluegrass music, cousins of southern gospel, to hear it in their home was to feel as though a special place had been prepared just for me. Far beyond that, we enjoyed good conversation, whether over tea, watching soccer, or preparing meals together. Another precious highlight of the entire weekend was the instant companionship our boys found with their two sons, Monde and Sihle.

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The worship services in New Beginnings were a true reflection of the rainbow nation. We moved seamlessly between songs in Sotho, Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaans, and English. Dances unique to each tradition punctuated the songs. In my parting words on Sunday morning, I likened the whole experience to being in the midst of “those who have come through the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb” (Rev. 7:13). The message of the vision, of course, is that only the robes of the redeemed are white, the moral purity of the people through the life and Spirit of Jesus; their distinctive colors, languages, and expressions remain. In her parting words, one of the leaders of New Beginnings reminisced about being part of a government-led initiative for diversity in the public school system in 2001. She saw for the first time that goal, that unity-in-diversity, fulfilled—on this weekend, in the church.

At this point, I will not go on to describe more about the specific sessions led, lessons learned, wisdom gleaned. I do want to share some pictures of the weekend. Enjoy.

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The Venas and the Sawatzkys

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The Mthatha contingent (L to R)—Erica Yoder (our guest from Indiana for July-Sept.), Andisiwe (youth from Harvest Time), Pastor Ntapo, Mama Ntapo, Mama Cule and Shalom (on back), Joe, Anna (with Jesse on her back but out of the photo), Sis Nandi (foreground).

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Jesse with the daughter of Pastor Coetzee from GCC-Cradock.

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Andisiwe and Erica have become good friends. Erica has been attending youth gatherings with Harvest Time.

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For the evening meal we would gather at the home of the pastors of New Beginnings, Gerald and Carmen Mulenga. At left are the Coetzees from GCC-Cradock. Seated in front of the fireplace are Andrew and Karen Suderman, MC Canada Witness workers from Pietermaritzburg.

All in all, this was one of the greatest weekends we have had in South Africa.