Adèle Kirsten in South Africa.
Photo courtesy of Adèle Kirsten

Adèle Kirsten in South Africa.

On August 10,1984 I left South Africa as a young 26-year-old peace activist, eager to learn more about the teachings and practice of Mennonites, especially on nonviolence, and in particular nonviolent direct action. I was also fearful – not just of exploring the unknown in a strange and vast land – but of being away from the daily struggles of the people in South Africa against the injustice of apartheid.

I returned home almost a year later to a country filled with fear. The military had invaded the African townships and acts of resistance resulted in detention without trial. There were disappearances, extra-judicial killings and thousands of activists on the run from the police and in hiding, including several of my friends from the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) and the Conscientious Objector Support Group (COSG). However, I returned carrying with me a wealth of knowledge – innovative ways to organize and mobilize people against injustice; training techniques for nonviolent direct action; and clarity on the teachings of those steeped in the Christian traditions of peace and justice.

My sojourn in the U.S. and my time in MCC's International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP) transformed and deeply enriched me. Being located in two assignments – one in Germantown, Philadelphia with the American Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT), and the other in Spokane, Washington State, with the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane (PJALS) allowed for many diverse experiences. These positions helped me expand my horizons and explore new ideas, grappling with what it means to be a woman, not just in the peace movement but in a deeply divided and unequal world. I also formed lasting friendships, especially in Spokane, and with the advent of new technologies such as Facebook, I am able to share in their lives. Several of them are still putting their lives literally on the line in the ongoing struggle for a just world (see Raging Grannies of Spokane).

Perhaps one of the most lasting changes is that IVEP instilled in me an appreciation of the meaning of solidarity and what it means to walk alongside people across the world struggling for a more just and equal world. It also affirmed for me the oneness of the human spirit and our deep desire to work for justice because we know that it is possible for all people to enjoy full lives, as equals, and at peace with one another in a whole world. It also taught me to listen to my heart and to follow my path of peace-making.

When I left Spokane in June 1985, I wrote a goodbye note to PJALS in which I acknowledged that ‘I cannot know all of what change will transpire because of my having shared a part of my life here.’ That has indeed been true.

Thirty-two years later I still live in Johannesburg and work with others to raise awareness of the devastating impact of gun violence in our country, developing programs and interventions to help reduce gun violence and advocating for stronger gun laws.

One of the most important and precious insights from my time on the IVEP program is best expressed in the words of Walter Wangerin in Ragman and Other Cries of Faith: “There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hidden, always leaving room to recognize God or not, but all the more fascinating because of that”.  

God has indeed been present.

How did I get there?

In June 1981, I was involved in efforts to support young white South African men who, on grounds of conscience, were refusing to service in the Apartheid-era South African Defense Force.  On a cold weekend in June, Jim Stutzman, a MCCer was doing a cross-country trip, and spent time with us in our meeting. This was my first introduction to MCC. It is important to remember that MCC was on the banned list of undesirable organizations in South Africa at the time and MCC staff needed special permission to transit the country. Another important person in my MCC journey was Suzanne Lind, stationed in the Transkei at the time, who encouraged me to apply for the IVEP. Taking this opportunity was one way in which I could take a break from the intensity of the South African situation as well as be exposed to and learn more about nonviolent direct action and peaceful resistance. It was a good time to be in the U.S. to learn this, because it was at the height of the Cold War and anti-nuclear movements.

I think my time was atypical of most IVEP volunteers in that I had a fairly big say in where I wanted to be and what I wanted to be doing. I spent 6 months in Philadelphia living in an intentional Christian community with John and Judy Alexander (Editor of The Other Side – a radical Christian publication) in Germantown. I worshipped at the Mennonite church in Germantown with other members of the community in which I lived.

My main point of contact at the MCC office in Akron was Barbara Willems Hoover as my main focus was on the peace building program; although Doreen Harms was my contact point for the IVEP program.

After the mid-year gathering of all the volunteers for that year in Bloomington, Ohio, I took the Greyhound bus across the U.S. to Spokane in Washington State, arriving on the morning of February 14. I lived with two young professional women in a house in the suburbs and worked with PJALS, a vibrant group of peace and social justice activists who were involved in a range of peace related activities ranging from direction action in stopping the trains carrying nuclear waste through the city, to doing CROP walks to raise awareness of the ecological fragility of the planet and the need to take good care of it.

It was not always easy being away from home, and although I needed some space to reflect and learn, I missed being away from the big struggles in South Africa. Towards the end of 1984, the South African Defense Force invaded the black African townships. This meant White soldiers were fighting their Black counterparts and it was the beginning of a low conflict civil war in the country.

When I got to Spokane, it was clear that my role would be to raise awareness of the injustices of apartheid, talk about the strategies being employed to bring about change, and in particular to talk about what roles the U.S. could play in strengthening actions such as economic sanctions as well as challenging U.S citizens to think about the injustices in their own backyard.