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Spreading the Word: Andrew and Karen Suderman in South Africa


Andrew and Karen Suderman, with their South-African born daughter, are currently in Canada visiting congregations and sharing stories about their ministry. They will return to South Africa at the end of August.

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July 13, 2012
-Deborah Froese

Winnipeg, MAN. —Anabaptism is catching on in South Africa, thanks in part to a Mennonite Church Canada presence. Like Dan and Yvonne Nighswander and others before them, Andrew and Karen Suderman are helping to establish the Anabaptist Network in South Africa (ANiSA), to “walk with, support, and grow communities of peace, justice, and reconciliation...”

The Sudermans have been in Pietermaritzburg since 2009.

It’s difficult to appreciate the full potential of Anabaptism in South Africa—or the hunger for it—without recognizing the impact and aftermath of Apartheid. Racial disparity first emerged under colonialism in the1800s, but it wasn’t until 1948 that the government instituted an official, legalized system to enforce segregation. Named after an Afrikaans word for “separation” the policy governed every aspect of life along racial divisions, from where one could reside or whom one could marry to what church one could attend. It clearly outlined access to education, healthcare, transportation and other public services—such as designating which washrooms and water fountains one could use— limiting quality and availability for those who were not of white descent.

Although Apartheid was abolished in 1994 when Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) came to power, division, pain and suspicion continue.

“If you’re trying to work toward restoration you sometimes just don’t know where to start,” Karen says. “There is so much need…There is so much inequality. The gap between rich and poor is the biggest in the world.”

While South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) allowed people to speak out about what they experienced under Apartheid, it only started the process of reconciliation. Once the TRC process ended, there were limited places and interest to continue the dialogue.

“One of the things that ANiSA offers is a space where some of that discussion can continue,” Andrew says.

The Sudermans are building connections in this milieu. They create safe places for people to meet one another across racial and economic boundaries. “We invite a couple of people to share their thoughts and spark the imaginations of others,” Andrew says. And it works. “Through these ANiSA Dialogues people have been open enough to be vulnerable with one another.” The conversation expands as people invite their friends.

Andrew has spent considerable time considering what it is that draws people to the Anabaptist message. “Anabaptism goes hand-in-hand with a lived expression of faith. The Anabaptist story, as people have seen it, is not just a theory or a theology, but something that a people have strived to live.  The historical Anabaptists were willing to die for their faith and die for their enemy.” He says that Dirk Willms, the escaped Anabaptist who returned to save his captor from drowning, is among the examples that South Africans find inspirational.

People also draw inspiration from historical examples of Anabaptists who were willing to be different and stand out—from becoming conscientious objectors, or wearing head coverings or dressing in a certain way, to eschewing modern technology. “Even how the church itself is structured stands out,” Andrew says. Most Mennonite churches reject powerful hierarchical structures.

 “Peace, or shalom—seeking to live in right relationship with God and with others—is instrumental in demonstrating the Kingdom of God that is at hand (Mk. 1:15) which is the heart of the gospel. Being a people of peace is vital and the base of what it means to be a Christ follower,” Andrew says. “What’s interesting is to hear how peace is also revolutionary! During Apartheid Mennonites specifically were not allowed to live in South Africa. They would ask questions as to why there is no peace? Why is there no justice? Who are the ones suffering from injustice and who are the ones being unjust? These questions made the ruling authorities uncomfortable.”

“In South Africa,” Andrew continues, “there remains a long road ahead in the pursuit of living in right relationship with one another. This continues to be true for those who have different racial backgrounds. But bit by bit, dialogue by dialogue, we see times and places where bricks begin to crumble, slowly bringing down the wall of division between brothers and sisters in Christ. This pursuit is a wonderful vision to work towards.”

Sidebar: Ministry in Five Parts

Andrew and Karen Suderman, Mennonite Church Canada workers in South Africa describe their ministry in five parts:

  1. Building connections between local, national and international Anabaptists
  2. Providing Anabaptist resources
  3. Sharing information
  4. Creating safe spaces for people of all races and background to enter into conversation
  5. Seeking ways of being incarnational to one another.

See complete coverage of Assembly 2012