NEWTON, Kan. — Succession is part of the grand biblical narrative, Anna and Joe Sawatzky told Mennonite Mission Network board members and supporters June 7.
They reported on their nine-year assignment in South Africa, which focused on empowering leadership at Bethany Bible School in Mthatha.
Moses gave leadership of a nomadic band of immigrants to Joshua. Elisha picked up the fallen mantle of Elijah. Jesus, at the end of his human life, gave power to the church to act as his body.
“Succession is the will of God,” Joe Sawatzky said.
The couple and their four sons continued the 30-year legacy of Mennonite mission workers working alongside African church leaders in Eastern Cape Province. Bethany Bible School, a teaching ministry in the Xhosa language for African-Initiated Churches, opened its doors in 1982, when Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission accepted an invitation from the Transkei Council of Churches.
The Sawatzky family considered their whole lives mission. Whether she was walking with a baby on her back in the African manner, or worshiping in church, Anna Sawatzky said there was never an off-time.
“Our ministry of presence brought everything together. [A common MMN phrase] ‘Be the gospel’ is great,” she said. “It’s a way of being with people, showing respect at every level.”
Joe Sawatzky described the couple’s life in South Africa as accompaniment-style ministry that responded to invitations.
“If they wanted me to preach, I would preach,” he said. “If they wanted me to sit there and observe, I did. If they wanted us to sleep in their home, we did.”
He said that even though they marched to the beat of other people’s drums, they could still be themselves. When he was given the pulpit, he preached on Anabaptist themes.
“Some of the things that were already a part of me connected with the way [South Africans] did things, and that mix created something new,” he said. “There was freedom in those moments to become something new or beyond what I had been before.”
Equipping, not planting
Thompson Adonis, archbishop of Reformed Church of Christ, worked with early Mennonite mission workers to lay the foundation of Bethany Bible School. He commended the Sawatzkys for continuing in their predecessors’ footsteps.
“Mennonites emphasize all the time that they are here in South Africa not to plant churches, but to equip believers to do their church ministries better, to be good stewards. That’s what the Sawatzkys did,” Adonis said. “They encouraged us to serve God in an African way.”
The Sawatzkys and a committee of student leaders established a 24-course curriculum for the school. Teaching took place during weekend conferences over a four-year period. Each year, three additional skills workshops, such as learning community development principles, or discovering responses to the HIV-AIDS epidemic, helped students address social issues.
While recognizing that only congregations can ordain people for ministry, Bethany celebrated the graduation of 18 students who completed all 24 courses. In the following two years, 25 more students have graduated.
The new leader
As Bethany’s leadership committee prepared for the Sawatzky family’s departure, they named a coordinator, Reuben Mgodeli.
The Sawatzkys affirmed Mgodeli, describing him as someone called by God to lead.
Joe Sawatzky and Mgodeli mentored each other as they studied the Bible together. During the past year, they met at least once a week to prepare for Bethany’s leadership transition.
Mgodeli said his relationship with the Sawatzkys was like that of Aquila and Priscilla, who served alongside the Apostle Paul.
“The way they loved each other and worked with each other at Bethany Bible School and in their house made me do that in my house, treating my wife as an equal companion with me,” Mgodeli said.
The Sawatzkys’ lifestyle, especially their humility and their love for God’s people, influenced many, Mgodeli said.
“They even ate with us and danced with us,” he said. “We gave them Xhosa names, Luxolo [Father of Peace] and Noxolo [Mother of Peace].”