By Laurie Oswald Robinson
NEWTON, Kansas, and ELKHART, Indiana (Mennonite Mission Network and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — Theologian Joe Sawatzky says that while serving in South Africa with Mennonite Mission Network, he often learned as much about God from his cross-cultural engagements as he did from textbooks.
It’s the potential for gift sharing across cultures that Sawatzky — a Church Relations representative for Mission Network — is most excited about in his new role as international education liaison for both Mission Network and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana.
In late August 2020, the two organizations finalized a relationship in which Sawatzky will serve one-third of his time with Mission Network alongside AMBS as a consultant to help develop AMBS’s Global Anabaptist Education (GAE) initiative. His efforts will be in conjunction with AMBS and Anabaptist-related educational institutions around the world as part of a partnership recently forged between AMBS and Mennonite World Conference (MWC).
“It’s been a dream of my heart for a long time to walk through a door like this,” Sawatzky said in a recent interview. “The new role promises to integrate my two biggest passions — mission and theological education. I am excited to join with global Anabaptist organizations who want to partner together to further develop Anabaptist theological formation.”
Sawatzky — a doctoral student in theology at University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa — sees this development as opening spaces for prophetic voices to be heard from communities around the world.
“We need to better hear their voices and understand their cultural perspectives. I believe this initiative will deepen the teaching and learning in both directions,” he said.
The partnership is structured so that AMBS students in other countries can be part of the further development of educational opportunities in their lands. One such student is Henok Mekonin of Ethiopia, who is pursuing a Master of Arts: Theology and Peace Studies. Mekonin lends cultural and technological expertise to AMBS professors and Ethiopian students enrolled in AMBS’s Master of Arts: Theology and Global Anabaptism (MATGA) degree, a fully online program.
“So many great leaders, pastors and evangelists are paying a high price to proclaim the gospel on the front lines of evangelism in Ethiopia,” Mekonin wrote in a recent email. “They are already in the field doing this marvelous work. Nothing empowers and encourages me to do more for this initiative than hearing great stories and testimonies from these leaders and pastors about the impact the courses they have taken so far are making in their lives and ministries.”
AMBS alum Patrick Obonde, who graduated this year with a Master of Arts: Theology and Peace Studies, says he found his Anabaptist education at AMBS strong on addressing racism, tribalism, patriarchy, misogyny, injustice, violence, poverty and migration.
“Deeply rooted in spirituality and technical competence training, a student of contextualized Anabaptist education would be aptly equipped to lead the necessary charge for missional leadership in the East and Central Africa region,” he wrote in a recent e-mail.
Sawatzky is primed to help build relationships with partners such as Mekonin and Obonde. Together with local leaders, he will help assess how leadership, technological infrastructure, academic resources, and financial structures in various locations may enable or inhibit viability for an AMBS partnership.
“Joe’s experience in offering theological education in a cross-cultural setting, in tandem with his passion for global church mission, makes him uniquely situated to move this partnership forward,” said AMBS President David Boshart, Ph.D. “I’ve been impressed with his ability to open exploratory conversations with other church leaders.”
Boshart said he is excited about the opportunities of the GAE initiative that the new collaboration between Mission Network and AMBS will make possible.
“There is a tremendous convergence here that feels like the Spirit’s leading,” he said. “We’re especially grateful for Mission Network’s generosity in making this partnership possible financially.”
Sawatzky, who earned a Master of Divinity in Mission and Evangelism from AMBS in 2005, utilized his theological training during his service in South Africa. He served there from 2006 to 2014 with his spouse, Anna, and their children. He was a mission worker/teacher/administrator for Bethany Bible School, based in the city of Mthatha. The itinerant, nonresidential, biblical and theological education program geared toward African Initiated Churches in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa has been a partner of Mission Network since 1982.
Through fraternal support, occasional workshops, and preaching, Sawatzky also interacted with other Anabaptist-related bodies in the region, such as Grace Community Church (a member of MWC) and the emerging Anabaptist Network in South Africa.
Mike Sherrill (MDiv 1997), Mission Network’s new executive director, said that ministry and education can be great resources to each other. In his former role as Asia director, Sherrill recalled witnessing “a real thirst for Anabaptist theological studies” among Mission Network partners.
“In these days, people are looking for a fresh approach to putting into action God’s love in ways that truly get to the root of the intercultural and interracial issues and injustice that society is facing,” Sherrill said. “People long to see how the gospel can speak to those things, and this partnership could provide examples of that.”
Mission Network leaders perceive Sawatzky’s consultancy for AMBS serving a unity of purpose between the organizations.
“This partnership gives Mission Network an opportunity to add our gifts — including Joe — to the gift-sharing effort,” said Sandy Miller (MDiv 2012), senior executive for Mission Network’s Resourcing and Mobilization division where Sawatzky serves.
John Lapp (MATS 1988), senior executive for Mission Network’s division of International Partner Engagement, said he believes partnering with AMBS and MWC will better equip Mission Network to continue far beyond “colonialist mission models to partnership in God’s mission around the world.”
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