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Botswana ministry characterized by care, respect

Sharon Dirks and counseling staff of Tshepong Counseling Network, an inter-church HIV/AIDS counseling centre in Gaborone, Botswana which was founded as a Christian response to the pandemic which has now infected 37% of adults in that country.

April 7, 2003
-by Allison Peters with Dan Dyck

Winnipeg, Man.—After seven years of working with African Independent Churches (AICs) in Botswana, workers Rudy and Sharon Dirks and their three children (Nathan, Shawna, and Stephanie) have returned to home to Canada. Their work in Botswana with AICs has been both challenging and rewarding as they walked with the churches and their leaders to figure out how to apply the Bible to life in Botswana.

A big part of their Mennonite Church Canada Witness/Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission supported work was to help communities deal with both the physical and spiritual side the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Their mission statement reads in part, “to practically demonstrate Christ’s love in response to the national AIDS crisis in the area of prevention, such as peer education, developing inter-church HIV/AIDS counseling centers, as well as post-infection care and supportive counseling, community awareness, and support projects.”

Working with the AIDS ministry has often been difficult. Their first three years were spent going to funeral after funeral. There was “a feeling of hopelessness,” says Rudy. Not everyone understood the physical implicat.ions and causes of AIDS. Some people believed it was spiritual judgment, disconnected from a person’s actions. Others politicized it as a Western issue, saying that AIDS stands for “American Invention to Discourage Sex”. Education, awareness and understanding were important keys in dealing with this issue.

Not all AIC church leaders supported their AIDS ministry. Some felt it was inappropriate for sexuality to be discussed in church. One of the women that the Dirks met in Botswana, an ordained minister, had her ordination taken away for speaking to a youth group about sex. She was reinstated some time later after the church leaders came to realize the necessity of the church dealing with HIV/AIDS and sexuality.

Mennonite involvement with the AICs began with Mennonite Central Committee development work, prior to the country's independence in 1966. A leader of the largest AIC (the Spiritual Healing Church), commenting on the MCC work said, "This is very good in terms of what you're doing in development work, but our churches also desperately need our leaders to be trained in studying the Bible because we have no where to send our people. We can't send them to mission churches - the mission churches will not train our leaders and send them back. They'll say, well if you come to the mission church you need to leave all of that that behind and become a member of our denomination. Our leaders don't have any education in the Bible." MCC invited Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission to get involved. "From that original invitation we are standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us," Rudy said.

Rudy and Sharon, along with couples from the Mennonite Brethren and Evangelical Mennonite churches worked in Botswana to help foster personal discipleship among Batswana Christians. Although the couples represent different church backgrounds, their collaborative work has been an active witness in bringing people of different denominational backgrounds together in Botswana. The AIDS counseling center that the Dirks helped to establish was part of an inter-church endeavor that had leaders from independent, Pentecostal, Evangelical, mainline, mission (Southern Baptist) churches working together. Showing care and respect for people and working together in the face of differences is having a lasting effect in their witness for Christ.

AIC leaders appreciate that Mennonite workers are not out to draw their members into Mennonite churches, but rather to walk alongside them in their spiritual journeys, say the Dirks. "Batswana tell us that over the years they have come to understand the Ba-Mennonite —"Ba" is the plural form in Setswana — as church workers who care for people, who demonstrate respect and non-judgmental attitudes toward African culture, and who have been willing to respect AICs as partners in the fellowship of the gospel. Mennonites continue to be the only church workers willing to work alongside the AICs in Botswana," said Sharon.

Rudy adds, “We have really, really valued the philosophy that long precedes us, of being willing to move into a country and say, ‘We’re not planting Mennonite churches’, (though) there’s nothing wrong with that (in the right context)…but in Botswana it was a unique context, there were all kinds of Christian churches, and so in the wisdom of the early Mennonite Church workers there they said, ‘They don’t need another church name yet; we need to resource people who are considering themselves Christians, join and partner with them and see how we can learn from each other and work together and try to grow the kingdom of God in this context.’

“The irony is that even though Mennonites in Botswana never have planted Mennonite churches, the Mennonite name is just about universally recognized across Botswana…so it’s interesting that that name is synonymous with people who are willing to work in a non-judgmental way with churches and yet not compromise on the centrality of Christ.”

Sharon speaks fondly of their farewell celebration. “It wasn’t necessarily just a praise Rudy and Sharon kind of thing. It really was a ‘Thank-you Mennonites, for what you have done, for how you have helped us to learn the Bible, how you helped us to learn so many things about working as Christians together, and how you’ve helped us to cooperate together as churches who often don’t like to cooperate together at all.’”

Although they have decided to leave Botswana, the Dirks still know the need that the people there have for Christ. “Mennonite mission workers are needed no less now than in the 1970s. We continue to have a golden opportunity to influence this country for Christ’s kingdom,” says Sharon wistfully.

The Dirks are from Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, and are members of Bethany Mennonite Church.