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Christians can help stem South Africa AIDS epidemic

Bishop Dubula (left), Bishop Thomas, Rev Vuso and Bishop Mpotulo, students in the Bible teaching program run by Lynell Bergen and Brian Dyck chat during tea break at an AIDS training in Cofimvaba. AIDS training is a new and growing area of ministry for the Bergen Dycks and their African colleagues.

December 10, 2002
by Charles T. Jones

Winnipeg, Man.—After suffering through colonialism, insurrection and apartheid, South Africa now faces an AIDS epidemic that is killing an average of 5,000 people each week, or 260,000 a year. But if Christians band together in a compassionate ministry of education and prevention, the deadly floodtide can be slowed, according to an MC Canada Witness couple serving in South Africa.

Lynell Bergen and Brian Dyck serve in Umtata - one of the poorest towns in the poorest region of South Africa. In Umtata and the surrounding area, local Christians are taking the lead in the fight against the deadly AIDS virus, which is sweeping throughout Africa and devastating its people, according to Bergen. According to three-year-old census data, one in five South African adults is infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. One out of seven children will be an AIDS orphan by 2005.

"The government has not done well in the issues of AIDS in South Africa," Bergen said. "All the churches are beginning to see that this is a call for them to step forward and take up their ministry as churches; as people with some moral authority, as people who had an active voice in ending apartheid. Now this is their new battle that they need to fight together, and they're beginning to do that. In less than a year, hundreds of people in the Umtata area have received training in AIDS care and prevention," Bergen said.

"It's very miraculous and wonderful that, in our region, it is the African independent churches that are really a step ahead of everyone else. It's really exciting and wonderful to see," she said.

Patrick Ndlungwane, a co-worker of Bergen and Dyck, says, "We want to try by all means to drastically reduce the incidence of AIDS in our community by 2005." Ndlungwane lives and works in Cofimvaba, about 100 miles from Umtata. Bergen called that, "a workable goal. It's certainly a worthy goal."

She said the movement around Umtata won't stop the spread of AIDS throughout South Africa, "but it's going to change the way that people interact with each other," and that's where the church needs to come in, she said.

"When you talk about AIDS, you're talking about sexuality, you're talking about relationships between men and women, you're talking about how parents are raising their children - all those things come into play, and they're addressing those issues. They're doing really exciting work," Bergen said of the Umtata Christian community. Hundreds of people in the area have been trained in AIDS prevention education, counseling, home-care issues and determining how best to deal with orphans.

"We do that very clearly from a Christian perspective," Bergen said. "We're a Christian organization, and we talk about issues like faithfulness in marriage and abstinence from sex outside of marriage. We're very clear about who we are."

Sex is a "recreational activity" for many of the young people in the Transkei region, a densely populated but rural area in Eastern Cape province, the poorest region of South Africa and the birthplace of Nelson Mandela. Young people there see little future for themselves and have lost hope, Bergen said. Where the government fails to act, local Christians are trying to provide menial jobs and appropriate recreational activities for young people.

Dyck and Bergen also are involved in Bible-teaching activities and in developing new church leaders. South Africa is about 80 percent Christian, with most of the remainder of its people holding to "traditional" indigenous beliefs. Average life expectancy in South Africa is a little more than 45 years.

"If we leave, this Bible-teaching program doesn't continue," Dyck said. "And we're trying to think of ways to get beyond that, to build a structure so that people can feel good about working together and taking instruction from other independent-church leaders.

Meanwhile, local women are bucking traditions and are taking a more active role in the church for themselves, Bergen said.

In 1986, a group of local women from the village Cofimvaba formed the Umtata Women's Theology Group, which meets regularly to study the Bible, "to dig deeper into what scripture means to them, and not just what they were hearing from the men in the front (at church services)," Bergen said.

Group members, whom Bergen described as "middle-class, well-educated black South African women," have written 11 Bible-study booklets for women, which "are being sold and being used all over the world." A group of Canadian Mennonite women recently sent the group $3,000, which may be used in part to translate the booklets into French so they can be used in French-speaking African countries such as Benin, Congo and Ivory Coast. Topics include the role of women in the church, women in the old and new testaments, sexuality, AIDS, marriage, parenting, singleness, divorce, aging, and death and dying.

Lynell Bergen and Brian Dyck serve as overseas workers with Mennonite Church Canada Witness, Mennonite Mission Network and Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission. They, along with their sons, Samuel, 9, and Marcus, 7, will return to continue their overseas assignment this winter.


December 10, 2002 By Dan Dyck

International assignment not a hardship

Winnipeg, Man.- "This has been a real blessing in our lives, for us, for our kids."

That's how Lynell Bergen responds to North American assumptions of hardship during their three-year assignment with MC Canada Witness in Umtata, South Africa.

A Mennonite Church Manitoba Camps with Meaning project involved campers writing to selected Witness workers around the world. In response to camper inquiries, Bergen said, "We really got the impression that people think that mission workers have it hard, and it's a terrible life and we're really suffering. We don't feel that way that all."

"We try to communicate that as we travel around to churches," she added, referring to their current North American visit.
Life in Umtata, says Bergen is just fine. They have a comfortable home, running water, electricity, computer and internet access (in fact Bergen and husband Brian Dyck have their own web site- visit

The Bergen Dycks simply say life is not harder in Umtata, only different. "Sometimes even the challenges can be a blessing. Life in North America has its disadvantages too - like being surrounded by overwhelming consumerism. What we have to do is live constructively with the challenges, and I think if God calls you to do something, God will be with you as you face the challenges that arise," said Bergen.

"Overall, our life in Umtata has been a rich blessing, and we are thankful to the churches for sending us, and thankful for the opportunity - the privilege - of being able to serve in the Transkei."

Ministry challenges, however, abound. The Bergen Dycks assignment focuses on Bible teaching and some work with AIDS education. Challenges include the local perception of white North Americans as bible experts and the dominance of religious programming on South African radio and television-much of which is imported from North America.

One comment from a bishop who had participated in biblical training years ago identified a need for education on the relationship between the old and new testaments.

"He said to us, I was told that I shouldn't believe the old testament… and now (we have) the New Testament and so this is the one I should follow, but now I know that I can use both books, and both have credibility," said Bergen.