Pastor Keith Ainsley of Trinity Lutheran Church in Sleepy Eye spent 10 days in South Africa to further establish the partnership between the Southwest Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and the Southeastern Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of South Africa (ELCSA).

Pastor Keith Ainsley of Trinity Lutheran Church in Sleepy Eye spent 10 days in South Africa to further establish the partnership between the Southwest Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and the Southeastern Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of South Africa (ELCSA).

Pastor Ainsley serves as the Dean of the Watonwan River Conference, which is partnered with the Shiyane Circuit of the Southeastern Diocese. As a Dean, he was paired with the Dean-elect of the Shiyane Circuit, the Rev. Thabani Duma, who Pastor Ainsley stayed with for a portion of his time in South Africa.

The Watonwan River Conference is composed of 26 congregations served by 16 ELCA pastors in a geographical area extending from New Ulm to near Fairmont to near Jackson and to Sleepy Eye. Pastor Ainsley accompanied Bishop Jon V. Anderson, the Rev. Dr. Harvey Nelson (former Missionary teacher to South Africa) and nine other Deans from the Southwestern Minnesota Synod on this trip to South Africa.

Five years ago, as the Dean of the Shiyane Circuit, the Rev. Bheki Mathe came to the Southwestern Minnesota Synod to visit area Lutheran churches in the Watonwan River Conference and experience how American Lutheran churches express Christian faith and ministry.

A year and half ago, Bishop Buthelezi, the Deans, and some other officials from the Southeastern Diocese came and visited the Southwestern Minnesota Synod extending their invitation to Bishop Jon V. Anderson to respond in likewise fashion. Eventually, all 10 Deans of the Southwestern Minnesota Synod with Bishop Anderson were gathered in an extended trip directed by Rev. Nelson to spend time in South Africa touring the Southeastern Diocese and visiting with companion Deans and Circuits while learning South African history and culture.

On Oct. 10, the group from the Southwestern Minnesota Synod departed from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. After 19 hours and 10,000 miles, the group finally arrived in Johannesburg on the night of Oct. 11.

From there the group went to the Bonaero Park Hotel, a hotel owned and operated by ELCSA. Pastor Ainsley explained, “This is beneficial to the church for two reasons: it provides accommodations for travelers who are attending church events and business while providing revenue to the ELC of South Africa.

The group spent two days in Johannesburg resting, learning and touring the city. On Oct. 13 the group traveled to Rorke’s Drift where, the next day, they attended a special worship celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the ELCSA seminary that had been moved to Umpumulo for protection and of late, is now located at the University at Pietermaritzburg near Durban.

Rorke's Drift, according to Pastor Ainsley, was the sight of a decisive battle between the British and Zulu tribes. It was once a mission station and a former trading post located near a drift, or ford, on the Buffalo (Mzinyathi) River, which at the time formed the border between the British colony of Natal and the Zulu kingdom.

The service of worship and celebration, Pastor Ainsley explained, lasted from 8 a.m. until noon. There were many musical selections sung by various choirs with dancing accompanying the music and singing during the offering procession.

He noted that instead of passing a collection plate, a large tub was held by a worship leader with everyone dancing their way to the front of the church and placing their offering in the large tub.

Pastor Ainsley said he was amazed at the strength of the voices uplifting God’s word in song and the dance rhythms that appeared so natural and free.

At the Sunday worship celebration at eMpangeni for the dedication of their new church building on Oct. 21, he was invited by the Rev. Khathi, Secretary of ELCSA, to join him again in the worship dancing with other leaders in the front of the church. Because many church officials were on hand for the Church Dedication, including many Bishops, media was also on hand to capture the event. After arriving home, Pastor Ainsley was sent an e-mail attachment of a photograph on the front page of a South African newspaper of him and the Rev. Khathi dancing during the service.

Pastor Ainsley explained the visit was to learn from each other and set goals for how they may assist one another to better express their faith and support of one another as Lutheran churches.

“It was also a great opportunity to see the church in a global perspective,” Pastor Ainsley said. “An important part is simply to learn about the global church. It’s not only about our differences, but the ways we can learn from one another to do ministry and church in ways that are grounded in our common and shared Lutheran understanding.” 

Pastor Ainsley went on to say that this visit was an official ecclesiastic visit between churches to establish a Memorandum Agreement of Partnership, which was presented to both delegations at the Southeastern Diocese complex at Umpumulo.

In addition to attending church services and conferences, the group had a chance to tour the countryside and see the culture.

Pastor Ainsley explained that electricity in rural areas, like Shiyane, has been an unreliable commodity. During his stay, he said the electricity never went off, but added, the internet is slow and is often not available.

Water is also an unreliable commodity and where the Rev. Duma serves, water is only available from the early morning hours until early afternoon when the water stores become depleted. To make sure a household has enough water, a garden hose is pulled through the window and a drum is filled up to have water on reserve for when it is shut off.

The houses are generally built smaller than houses in Minnesota and Pastor Ainsley said there was no trash pick up where he was at Wasbank, thus trash litters the backyards to be burned if it doesn’t get blown away by the wind.

Farming is the main industry in the rural sector with grain, sugar cane and tree farms scattered throughout the landscape.

Several years ago congregants from Trinity Lutheran Church in Sleepy Eye, Lee Johnson and his daughter, Elizabeth, went to the same part of South Africa and began a rabbit project. The project brought rabbits as a source of nutrition and they taught the people how to raise them. As a gift provided by the Watonwan River Conference Partnership Committee, Pastor Ainsley presented the Shiyane Circuit Partnership Committee with two seed planters to make sowing seeds in their community and personal gardens and fields an easier task.

“This trip was a big eye-opener for me,” Pastor Ainsley said. “Our church is global. And even though South Africans have a different culture and a different way of doing things, we have much more that we share in common. Someday, I hope there will be another opportunity for me to visit our South African friends.”