Twenty-eight men and women, all members of various Lutheran churches in the southwest Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Church of America, returned Jan. 31 from an intensive two-week experience living and working with several black families and black Lutheran churches in the Southeast Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of South Africa.

Why did they go? What most impressed them about their visit to this unique country? What lasting imprint might this journey produce?

Livestock production specialist Dan Yonker, who manages a 2,000-sow family farm farrowing operation in Jackson County, simply said, “I went because I felt it was God’s calling. And that happened because of meeting Pastor Bheki Mathe who lives and works in South Africa at a Synod meeting last summer. After hearing Mathe discuss the challenges and opportunities for his black people back home, I just sensed that maybe I could help.”

The biggest impact from his first visit to South Africa was the complexity of the many factors surrounding the poverty he witnessed, especially in the rural areas. “They have so little. No farm equipment, no money for fertilizer, perhaps not even money to buy good seed. Yet after being there, talking with them, seeing firsthand their situation, I think we can help put the pieces together to at least make a successful prototype for how to better feed themselves and produce enough to sell into the marketplace as well.”

A personal project for Yonker is a photo and letter exchange between 32 Sunday school children in a small rural African church he visited and his own Sunday school in his hometown church. While at the African church, Yonker took pictures of each of the 32 kids to bring home and share with his local Sunday school. “And then my next step is to get photos and messages from each of our Sunday school kids sent back to these African children. That’s not much but establishing these connections is what church mission work is all about.”

For Barb and Paul Pohlman, farmers near Heron Lake where Barb is also is a special education teacher, the “reason” for their trip to Africa was basically the urging of their pastor Mark Yackel at their Lutheran church in Windom. “He told us about this planned agricultural mission trip and said, ‘You two are a prime example of the people who need to go work with the church and farm people of South Africa.’ We thought and talked and thought and talked — finally in September after the end of our vegetable marketing season, we said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

The biggest impression on the Pohlmans was the incredible beauty of the countryside plus the obvious love of family and church among the rural black families. “Their faces just gleam with sharing and caring. Our society has much to learn from these people, who have so little yet live so big in their hearts and church life.”

Barb, an avid gardener, who with her daughter runs two-day farmers market sessions each week in Windom and Spirit Lake, Iowa, plus call-in orders at their farm, said more communication with the African people is needed, whether it be e-mail, telephone or postal service. “Once we started visiting with them, it was easy to see that more communications could really be helpful in many ways. So we’re hoping our church, in fact our entire synod take on a much bigger partnership with our new friends back in South Africa,” Paul said.

As a member of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Board of Directors, plus a director with the American Soybean Association, this opportunity to be part of an agricultural/church mission to South Africa was almost a natural for Barb Overlie of rural Lake Crystal.

“Because of our work with our church youth on mission projects, I felt I could help. Also our WISHH program (World Initiative for Soybean usage in Human Health) already has several projects in South Africa. Many commercial companies provide products for us to work with in HIV-AIDS initiatives,” Overlie said.

For Overlie, the absolute beauty of the rural country areas was also a terrific impression. “It just does’t seem possible, the fresh new beauty that we saw each day while working with these families and black communities.

“Perhaps I came with different expectations because I have traveled to many Third World countries already. So just a few ideas, perhaps some new hope, are things that I hope we accomplished. Like when I showed a lady that she could take used dishwater soap to keep bugs off her tomato plants. Or we also suggested planting marigolds in their vegetable gardens because certain bugs don’t like the odor of marigolds. And for another group who were having troubles keeping their chickens, we simply suggested penning them up. Often it doesn’t take much to make a difference.”

St. James-area farmer John Wolle was matter of fact about his trip. “Four guys from our church decided to go because we simply felt this was a project that offered adventure, friendship and service.”

He too said the beauty of the country was the biggest surprise. “The rolling green hills, the rich soils with good looking crops of corn and sugar cane and the stark simplicity of their lives and communities makes a lasting impression.

“I think the impact we might make is showing the native Africans that people, regardless of race and color, do care about each other and can work together. Having us Minnesota farmers talking directly with some of their farmers, even though they are so limited in what they can do, does make a difference. More education, and perhaps more joint partnership projects that we can assist with, will make a difference. They’re pretty neat people.”

Don Swanjord, adjunct professor at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, also traveled with this group. Being a student of social sciences, Swanjord said, “analyzing all the new information that is part of their new world is the new challenge to our synod people. I think you can see this is exciting, thrilling, rewarding and generating many new friendships. The good part of this excursion is that we are all rural people interfacing with rural church people of South Africa. We can’t help liking our hosts because outside of skin color, we can all relate on the very same issues important in life, family, love and religion.”

He witnessed inward feelings of satisfaction with his fellow Minnesota colleagues despite the frustrations of not having the tools, the resources, to make immediate change. “I see people being very bright-eyed and hopeful, even though we do not always understand each another.”

He sees the imprint of this journey will be the fact that this is the launching of a partnership that likely will only grow and further nurture good work both in South Africa and rural Minnesota. “This was a people-to-people mission. We have established a common bond.”

Relating to the fact that older South African women seem to be holding the church together, Swanjord volunteered this is often the case in Minnesota rural churches also. “So we have to recognize this reality. Our synod does not believe in closing churches. My thoughts would be that the Synod (Diocese) of South Africa attempt the same mission.”

Already members of the Minnesota delegation are discussing a return visit to their new friends in South Africa. Good evidence that the Southwest Minnesota Synod, ELCA, and the Southeast Diocese, ELCSA, are into a long-term relationship of building God’s mission together.


The Land Staff Writer Dick Hagen participated in this mission trip.