​Jacob, Kathryn, Dan, and Claire Smith Derksen completed a four-year Mission Network assignment in South Africa in December. They began new jobs in April. Photo by David Fast. 

By Lynda Hollinger-Janzen
Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Dan and Kathryn Smith Derksen and their family recently completed a four-year assignment with SADRA Conflict Transformation through Mennonite Mission Network in South Africa.

GOSHEN, Indiana (Mennonite Mission Network) — Dan and Kathryn Smith Derksen, workers with Mennonite Mission Network, received a standing ovation at the end of their good-bye concert in South Africa last November.

Proceeds from the concert benefited the SADRA Conflict Transformation program where the Smith Derksens served for the past four years. The event, produced and directed by Kathryn Smith Derksen, featured her own original works and those of Xhosa composer, Vusumzi Tsham. The event also included songs performed in eight languages by singers representing the racial diversity of the Rainbow Nation.

"To know who you are, you need to know where you come from."

The concert's title, Yet I will rejoice!, came from Kathryn Smith Derksen's piece based on Habakkuk's poetry, "Though the fig tree does not bud and … though there are no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord." The event, "storytelling through music," was structured around Smith Derksen's exploration of the ethnic streams in her own family's history and the diversity of identities in South Africa.

"We need a strong sense of self to engage globally," Smith Derksen said. "To know who you are, you need to know where you come from."

She described her forebears as Mennonites and peacemakers — refugees persecuted for their commitment to nonviolence. They were also White settlers who benefited from "land taken from the original occupants, and who tried to snuff out [the original occupants'] culture."

While Kathryn Smith Derksen led the concert — directing, narrating, playing the viola da gamba, and singing ⸺ the concert was a family effort. Jacob Smith Derksen served as the audiovisual technician and joined the family in a vocal quartet with four-part harmony. Dan stage-managed and narrated. He also added his voice to Claire Smith Derksen's to enhance the bass section.

In a piece reflecting on social and racial inequality, Kathryn Smith Derksen infused the African-American spiritual, Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, with Chadwin Nel's rap poem, Manenberg Mahattenberg. Nel, a SADRA-trained peer mediator, wrote and performed the rap about growing up fatherless in Manenberg, a part of Cape Town that many people consider dangerous.

During the concert, Oscar Siwali, SADRA's founder and director, shared his vision for the Southern African Development and Reconstruction Agency. Created in 2013, SADRA is about teaching nonviolent ways of interacting, so, of necessity, the organization works in the places of greatest violence, Siwali said.

The event was held in Somerset West, a mostly White, wealthier area of Cape Town. However, the venue, Church Street Methodist, was significant for its history of being a "freed slaves" church. Siwali thanked the Smith Derksens for helping build bridges between communities, like Somerset West and Nel's neighborhood, Manenberg. Siwali also appreciated the role the Smith Derksens played in opening doors to many international embassies that now help to fund SADRA's programs.

"Finding each other is the way forward."

The beautiful melodies and harmonies of the Yet I will rejoice! concert transformed time into an "on earth as in heaven" moment. And yet, Kathryn Smith Derksen said that bringing people from diverse communities together was a struggle from the beginning through the final rehearsal. She was determined to have concert participants and music that represented the spectrum of South Africa's cultures.

"A lot of people have nurtured the vision of a multi-ethnic choir, but there are many difficulties in such a complicated social reality," she said.

For example, the seven singers in the bass/baritone section came from six ethnic groups — Coloured and White speakers of Afrikaans, Coloured and White speakers of English, and Black people who speak seSotho and isiXhosa. (Coloured is the South African designation for people of multiracial heritage.) Each of them had personal stories that contributed to the complexity of bringing the group together. Some of the song choices awakened buried grief. The father of a White Afrikaner had been killed by a Black man. Emotions ran high in rehearsals and logistical difficulties threatened the project, but the concerts were moments of shimmering grace and received rave reviews.

For the concerts, each person set aside their prejudices and came together, Kathryn Smith Derksen said.

"One way to approach hurt and healing is through telling our own stories," she said.

This is precisely what Kathryn Smith Derksen did through the concert, her parting gift to her family's South African community.

"Music brings us together; it's a way to express the inexpressible," she said. "Western cultures pursue a selfishness that doesn't deliver, but music is communal and demands a communal response. 'Finding each other is the way forward,' is one of Oscar Siwali's favorite sayings. I will take that with me wherever I go."

SADRA's mission

SADRA has five main foci in building a tradition of peace for South Africa: conflict transformation, peace education, election monitoring, women in peacebuilding, and church renewal. While Dan and Kathryn Smith Derksen helped in all these programs, their energies were directed toward peer mediation training and community mediation training sessions in which 450 people were trained in 2019. From 2016-2017, they served as SADRA Peace Witnesses during a time of student protests and police brutality. Kathryn also led SADRA's monitoring process to gather data and evaluate the programs for effectiveness.

Smith Derksens journey to SADRA and beyond

The Smith Derksens described how their education and previous ministries prepared them to work with SADRA. During her university years, "devastated by the genocide in Rwanda," Kathryn Smith Derksen committed herself to peacemaking in Africa. She graduated from Fresno Pacific University with undergraduate degrees in music composition and international political science and a graduate degree in conflict management. Dan Smith Derksen earned a bachelor's degree in peace studies from Manchester College (now University) in Indiana.

"Kathryn and I met in Belfast [Northern Ireland] where we were both engaged in peace work," Dan Smith Derksen said. "We discovered we were both born in Africa and we both loved music."

Kathryn Smith Derksen normally judged how serious suitors were by telling them she was planning to move to Africa and have babies. When she used this line with Dan, he replied, "Me too!" Two years later, they married.

Dan and Kathryn Smith Derksen were born while their parents, conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War, served as teachers, his parents in Nigeria and hers in Botswana. The Smith Derksen couple continued their families' legacies of service by joining Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Uganda where they worked with local leaders to advocate for amnesty for The Lord's Resistance Army and for the release of child soldiers. Kathryn said that their Acholi neighbors, who had suffered so many atrocities and who sang from the Book of Job during wedding processionals, inspired her to compose the Yet I will rejoice! piece. She learned from them and their faith to say, "God is good, even in the face of evil."

The Smith Derksens' first child, Claire, was born in Uganda in 2001. Following their work in Uganda and expecting their second child, the family moved to Seattle to be near Kathryn's family. Jacob was born there in 2003. In 2006, the Smith Derksens accepted another three-year MCC assignment that took them to Burkina Faso for French language study and then on to Chad, where they served with the Chadian Association for Non-Violence until 2009.

They returned to Seattle, where Dan Smith Derksen worked as the building manager for the University Christian Church, and Kathryn held several simultaneous positions, including administrator for Evergreen Mennonite Church, music director of Northminster Presbyterian Church, and choir director of the Alliance Française.

In December 2019, the Smith Derksen family completed their four-year ministry in South Africa and re-established a home in Seattle where Claire and Jacob settled into school life and Dan and Kathryn finished up their Mission Network term by speaking in churches. In April, Dan began working with a low-income housing organization, and Kathryn as community engagement manager of Path from Poverty, a Seattle-based organization raising support for women's groups in Kenya.






​Lynda Hollinger-Janzen is a writer for Mennonite Mission Network.



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