ELKHART, Ind. (Mennonite Mission Network) – Breakthru Church International in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, provided leadership in organizing the Pietermaritzburg for Jesus Campaign on May 10-12. This campaign included prayer for the city where some immigrants from other African countries have been the target of hate crimes.
However, television coverage in the United States didn’t show the 5,000 participants who worshiped God, prayed, and committed their lives to serve others, no matter their nationality, and not the 180 pastors from diverse denominations who met for two days after Sunday’s mass rally. News networks prefer scenes of flaming buildings and small bands of people carrying machetes, to televising the thousands of people who work tirelessly for unity and the dignity of all people.
What is the reality in South Africa? Mennonite Mission Network personnel and partners in mission say that media has sensationalized the violence.
“The media blows things out of proportion,” said Russell Toohey, Breakthru’s pastor. “No one in our church is threatened, and all the pastors I know are safe. Current rioting and fatalities have not risen to the level witnessed in 2008.”
Nina Toohey, also a pastor at Breakthru, said of the Pietermaritzburg for Jesus Campaign, “The weekend was phenomenal; never have we seen so much unity across the board of all races. God is really doing something in our city.”
Oscar Siwali, executive director of Southern African Development and Reconstruction Agency, also states that focusing on the violence is not helpful.
“Mennonite Mission Network partners have participated in many anti-xenophobia activities,” Siwali wrote in an e-mail.
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He listed a vigil organized by religious and municipal leaders of Cape Town. Dignitaries in attendance included the Executive Mayor of Cape Town, the Premier of the Western Cape Province, and the Archbishop of Cape Town. Another community initiative organized by local religious organizations brought together taxi associations and community police forums. Here, foreign nationals marched together with South Africans to say no to xenophobia. “While a lot has been done, more needs to be done to prevent the possible repeat of these ugly xenophobic attacks,” Siwali wrote.
Trever Yoder has been serving through Mennonite Mission Network with Church Land Programme in Pietermaritzburg since August 2014. This organization works for social justice, and has been active in promoting understanding among immigrants and South Africans, as has Anabaptist Network in South Africa.
The wave of xenophobia that is sweeping through cities like Durban and Pietermaritzbug is a continuation of 2008 protests, Yoder said. He reported a conversation with a pastor who told him that for the past seven years, more than a dozen massacred bodies from KwaZulu Natal (the province in which both Durban and Pietermaritzburg are located) have been sent back to Ethiopia every month.
“Nongovernmental organizations are scurrying to help the refugees with food, water and shelter, Yoder said. “We have been very active trying to get out the message that ‘Pietermaritzburg says no to xenophobia.’ We have been putting up posters and yellow cloth, representing friendship.”
Yoder said that the majority of people living in Pietermaritzburg believe that hatred and violence against fellow human beings is wrong.
“Dealing with the underlying crisis is our collective, urgent, and ongoing responsibility, but allowing frustration to be channeled into violence against people who are here from other countries is wrong in principle and wrong in practice,” Yoder said.
Yoder advocates for more spaces to talk about the fears that divide people.
Garrett Smith, also serving with Mission Network, said, “As an outsider it is easy to have fear when insiders fear you. However, [the South African people] give me the courage to walk home again. People I have seen and greeted show secret signs of caring. Lips rise into smiles; thumbs raise.”
Anabaptist Network in South Africa participated in a grassroots movement of displaying the color yellow, a sign of friendship, happiness and hope. One night when Smith was wrapping trees in yellow sheets as part of an ANiSA initiative, a stranger joined him.
“He helped me put up my sheet. Then, he grabbed his phone and asked for a picture, so I hugged the guy like I knew him. I look back and think, ‘Wow! That was not like me. And, I didn’t even know that dude.’ But the simple fact is that there are people here that do care. Sometimes, like the rest of the world, people just do not know how to show that they do.”
Lizzy Epp, serving through Mission Network, counted 17 people when ANiSA began “yellow-ribboning” trees, but before she knew it, “there was a very large crowd. I don’t even know how they all appeared. They were all wearing strips of yellow cloth.”
Smith said his wish is that Pietermaritzburg can be a guiding light, like it was in 1893, when Mahatma Gandhi was thrown off a train in the city and began a nonviolent protest against racial discrimination. Gandhi’s statue stands in the center of the city calling its inhabitants to nonviolent resistance to oppression and hate.