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2018, vol. 72

She Sets a Table Before Me in the Presence of My Enemies: Anabaptism, Women and Revolutionary Hospitality in South Africa

by Karen Suderman

Karen Suderman teaches in the Intensive English Program at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. This essay is based on a presentation she gave at the conference Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries, June 22-25, 2017, at Eastern Mennonite University.

What happens to a place, a society, that forsakes hospitality? How does that inform the ways in which people interact? How the government functions? How does that form one’s imagination about the “other’?

South Africa knows and continues to live with the ramifications of this reality. Though the history and imagination of segregation began long before, when the National Party came into power in South Africa in 1948, that marked the beginning of 46 years of segregation, violence, exclusion and struggle. In its barest terms, the pit of apartheid was inhospitality. Barriers – both physical and ideological – clearly defined the movements of all South Africans. Extensive and detailed laws outlined the movements of all people, what they could do, how they were taught and with whom they could interact. On a large scale, the majority of South Africa’s people were made to feel in no uncertain terms that they were not welcome in their land of birth. The apartheid government drew its strength from imbalance, injustice, violence, and privilege.

The apartheid monolith was immense and seemingly insurmountable. The struggle against such systematic hatred was long, tiresome and soaked in blood. What tools were in the hands of the oppressed? How could they struggle? How could they flex the grassroots power they possessed?

Widespread political movements were supported en masse. The African National Congress, the United Democratic Front, the Communist Party (to name only a few) all worked together and in their own ways to mobilize the masses and create a platform for voices to be heard. Strikes, boycotts and demonstrations were commonplace. The African National Congress created a militarized arm called uMkhonto weSiswe or “The spear of the nation.’ These were the overt tools of revolution used by those struggling against apartheid in the explicit power struggle that took place on a daily basis.

There was, however, another tool. One that was quiet, though equally powerful. While the aforementioned parties and movements are the legend of the struggle against apartheid and have earned mention in the annals of South African history, what I speak of is the lore of the struggle against apartheid. The stories exist under the surface and they are not often mentioned in history books. This tool begins with a large pot, a wooden spoon and an open door.

Remembering and practicing hospitality across racial boundaries in the context of apartheid South Africa was not only frowned upon. It was illegal. Yet many dared to open their homes and their lives to one another creating alternate spaces of justice and equality. Hospitality was not an augmentation to a revolutionary act. It did not simply feed the revolution, literally and metaphorically. Hospitality was revolution!

I had the privilege of calling South Africa home from 2009-16. I witnessed firsthand the reverberating pain and mistrust that is the legacy of colonialism and apartheid. I also witnessed the dogged determination of many in the nation to move beyond the apartheid imagination and to witness a new reality. As workers with Mennonite Church Canada Witness, my husband and I were invited to South Africa to help organize and coordinate the Anabaptist Network in South Africa or ANiSA. Among many things, I found a key role I played within the network and our larger ministry was to provide hospitality. Even in post-apartheid South Africa, hospitality is vital to freeing the imagination to envision what it means to engage the other and how to walk together.

Eating with the enemy – revolutionary hospitality
The apartheid system was extremely effective at creating mistrust and enmity. Dividing people from each other – not only white from black, but white from Indian, from colored – created perceptions and stereotypes of the “other’ based on fear and thinly veiled hate. The apartheid regime took great care to ensure that South Africans were blinded to common humanity. Rather than choosing to seek and see what might bring them together, South Africans were conditioned to only see and fear differences. This developed at all levels in South African culture and society, through city planning and infrastructure, laws, formal education, public communication and propaganda creating conditions in which people’s knee-jerk reaction to one another would be to slam the door and lock it rather than holding it open.

Involvement with the struggle against apartheid was risky business- no matter who you were. If you were black, Indian or colored, you were subject to the brutality of police response. Violent responses to protest were common. Rubber bullets, stun grenades, tear gas and live ammunition were frequently used tools. Prison – or worse – was the repercussion. Those in positions of privilege within the apartheid system – namely those deemed white – risked being ostracized from their communities, congregations and families if they demonstrated sympathy to the struggle.

Many across the racial spectrum accepted the risk, choosing to hold the door open in defiance of the contorted imagination the apartheid regime fostered. Michele Hershberger, in her book A Christian View of Hospitality, rightly suggests: “Hospitality is an effective vehicle for stopping injustice and confronting racism…Our welcoming puts teeth into our words and into our living…’ (164-65) Hospitality balances receptivity and confrontation. It simultaneously demonstrated authentic openness and love to those who were deemed “other’ in the apartheid system and openly challenged the apartheid system with potently peaceful defiance.

David and Annemie Bosch perpetrated radical hospitality to both friend and foe. When mixed-race gatherings in private homes were illegal, they hosted meals and Bible studies for all who wanted to participate, and many came. These were rich and warm encounters at the table and over the Bible that transcended social and racial boundaries. This, of course drew the attention of the secret police who sat in their cars, rather obviously positioned, outside the Bosch home, watching the goings-on – neither intimidating the participants nor deterring them from their activities.

Taking hospitality another step further, Annemie brewed a pot of coffee, poured it into a thermos and sent her son outside to give it to their would-be enemies. Handing the thermos through the widow, he said, “It is cold. Here is some coffee to help you stay warm. By the way, we’re having a meal and a Bible study inside. Please, you’re welcome to join us. Come in!’ The police declined the invitation to come into the home, but they did accept the coffee.

Sam and Morag Ross also embodied an amazing hospitality. A medical doctor and professor, Sam Ross quickly noticed a housing problem for the students of color studying at Howard College and the medical school in Durban. These places of learning and the Ross’s home were in a location classed “whites only’ under the Group Areas Act. Students of color had a long and costly commute every day if they were to live in their “designated’ area and still attend classes. Disregarding the law, Sam and Morag, whose home was close the university, opened their doors to the students, as many as six at a time over the course of approximately 15 years lived in the Ross household while they studied, a total of approximately 100 students. Letters from some of the students describe their feeling that the Ross home was “hospitality, love, humility and generosity exemplified.’[1]

A recent book describes the medical school as a “school of protest.’

Another friend, Poki Puthu, remembers growing up in Soweto when the student uprising erupted in June of 1976. She tells stories of how several “Mamas’ took to the streets with their braais (South African charcoal grills) and poitjke pots (three-legged cast-iron stew pots) to help feed the protestors as the demonstration stretched into days and tensions increased.

On other occasions, the Mamas also took to cooking large meals in front of their homes while clandestine gatherings took place within the home. The African National Congress, among many other liberation movements, was banned during apartheid and its members were forced underground. Meetings, therefore, needed to happen in secret. However, they were often raided and broken up by the police. Cooking outside created the ruse of a social gathering to diffuse suspicion. The Mamas always offered to share the food they cooked with the police, though it was not often accepted.

Such acts of hospitality demonstrated a powerful and subversive peace in a system that fed on acts of hatred and violence. Not only was recognition of the “other’ offered by the Mamas, and the Ross and the Bosch families of those who were deemed “less’ by apartheid law, but recognizing and engaging the secret police in such a way put the authorities in a difficult position. The open door of the Bosch home poured light onto the street where the secret police were trying to hide. The offer of food from the Mamas, an act of decency and consideration, recognized the common base human need for food – enemies or not. The police were seen, acknowledged and engaged as full human beings in need of a place of belonging when what they were seeking most was to be unseen and threatening.

In her book Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, Christine Pohl notes that acts of hospitality such as these, “… resist[ed] boundaries that endanger persons by denying their humanness. [Hospitality] saves others from the invisibility that comes from social abandonment. Sometimes, by the very acting out of welcome, a vision for a whole society is offered, a small evidence that transformed relationships are possible’[2] Hospitality offered by the Mamas and the Bosch and Ross families, along with many others, gave a creative glimpse and spread hope of what many wanted South Africa to become.

While hospitality had a key role to play during the struggle against apartheid, its role is just as crucial in a post-apartheid context. While the laws and boundaries ceased to exist in 1994, the apartheid imagination remains strong.

Eating with the enemy – being a revolutionary host
Mennonite Church Canada describes its international engagement as Witness. This term was very carefully and deliberately chosen. It speaks to the bi-directionality of what it means to engage cross-culturally. We witnessed many things. We saw and observed the pain of apartheid, the violent legacy it created and its lasting imagination. We witnessed places of violence, pain, sorrow and grief. We also witnessed resistance, hope, joy and peace. And we witnessed to something. Together with our South African sisters and brothers, we worked to witness to the upside-down nature of the kingdom of God. We worked to witness to the nature of relationships transformed by the peace of Christ. We worked to witness to the type of community that emerges from these transformed relationships. The work of this witness is embedded in the notion of welcome as demonstrated by Jesus time and time again.

Throughout our seven years of service in South Africa, hospitality and sharing the table were fundamental roles in which we found ourselves. I often quipped that while the head of my work was in the library I created, its heart and soul were based in the kitchen and at the table. During the last four years in South Africa, we had the pleasure of hosting more than 1,600 people, averaging more than 400 a year. It was an immense gift to share food across South Africa’s racial and socioeconomic spectrum, both in our home and in other settings. These shared meals began and sustained the relationships we deeply value, and gave all seated at the table the physical and relational sustenance needed to do the work we were called to do.

In his book Fingerprints of Fire, Footprints of Peace, Noel Moules observes: “The only physical thing Jesus leaves us, with which to build the church, is a table with food on it.’[3] Food both literally and figuratively builds and sustains the body of Christ. Whether we are sharing the communion meal or a communal meal, the effect is the same – we are binding ourselves together as the body of Christ. Christine Pohl states, “In many settings the line between the shared meal and the Eucharist is blurred; the two flow into each other much as was the case in the early church. The sacramental aspects of meals become clearest in these settings, but even separate from the Eucharist, one often senses a divine mystery in dining together at a table of welcome.’[4]

Often, we experienced and sensed this divine mystery. 

We learned that the power hospitality has in its ability to bring together unlikely groups of people in a peaceable way. During our time in Pietermaritzburg, a group of people emerged from a study on Jesus and politics that my husband, Andrew, led at a local seminary. After the workshop had run its course, this group of people approached Andrew and informed him that they were not content to end the discussion. They wanted to engage further. Over the next two years, an intentional community formed. We gathered together monthly to share a meal and to study the Bible. This gathering would have been illegal during apartheid and continues to be unusual today. Tribe, race, socioeconomic status, religious denomination, all of the physical and ideological boundaries meant to keep us apart, melted away when we came together. Anglicans, Methodists, Catholics, Mennonites, Pentecostals and Charismatics, black, white, foreign and South African – we all came together sharing the common need for companionship and food for both physical and spiritual journeys. This was a group of people who cared deeply for each other and valued the gifts, insights and opinions of everyone present. Everyone took turns leading discussions, turning common notions of power and leadership on their head. This group created an alternate space of equality and justice.

We also brought people together through our role with the Radical Journey program (now known as Journey International). Run by Mennonite Mission Network, Journey International is a one-year formational experience in cross-cultural learning and service for young adults who desire to watch for where God is at work and imagine ways to join in.

We were the home base and the mentors for the volunteers who came to South Africa and we worked hard to ensure that they felt our house was their home. Beyond the volunteers themselves, we aimed to welcome their host families as well. At least three times a year, we would invite the volunteers with their host families to our home for a meal. Often this meant groups of people were gathering in our home that would otherwise have no reason to sit down together and have a meal – Zulu, Indian, colored and white. When we first began this practice, at beginning of these evenings, the awkwardness was palpable. People did not know how to engage one another. Yet we have learned the remarkable power of food – it disarms, it unifies. If there is no other uniting factor, our stomachs are it. Through these evenings, as people relaxed into their food, they also relaxed into one another’s presence. Along with the food, people began to share stories and experiences and found more common ground. Quiet, tentative small talk grew into robust conversation, punctuated with interested exclamations and the music of hearty laughter. Usually by the end of these evenings, people who barely knew how to speak to one another at the beginning were exchanging contact information. Toward the end of our time in South Africa, members of this group would greet each other as friends with warm hugs and handshakes. It was amazing to see.

Hospitality also served as a tool to challenge understandings of gender roles and one’s place in the home or leadership. Gender roles in South Africa are still very prescribed, especially in rural areas. The general expectation, therefore, was that I would prepare meals and do most of the work while people were in our home. For my husband, the cultural expectation was that he would sit with the guests while I served first refreshments, then the meal. And, most importantly, he was expected to give thanks for the food. These, too, were opportunities we took to demonstrate an alternate way of operating. Often I did do the bulk of the meal preparation. However, when people arrived at our home, I would go and sit with our guests while Andrew served refreshments. When time came to give thanks, Andrew would either defer to me to pray or (and this is even more subversive) he would ask one of the younger members of the group. In a culture where the oldest male is often treated with the most deference, to offer the youngest, often a female, the honor of giving thanks for a meal turned notions of power and culture on their head. This was yet another way in which we used hospitality to demonstrate an alternative way of being, and hopefully the upside-down politics of the kingdom of God.

Simultaneously disarming and deeply subversive, hospitality possesses the power to gently re-shape the post-apartheid South African imagination. Assuming a hospitable stance takes constant mindfulness in a space where physical walls and gates constantly challenge the practice. Beginning in small pockets as we participated with our South African sisters and brothers, we witnessed and experienced how attitudes and assumptions can radically transform when a table is shared. Time and commitment is required to see and experience such transformation. Sharing one meal is not a miracle antidote to centuries of segregation and oppression, but it is a beginning.

Eating with the enemy – God, our revolutionary host
Reflecting on hospitality in a South African context brings the constant echo of Psalm 23:5: “He sets a table before me in the presence of my enemies.’ Enemies abounded in South Africa. Between the open racial hatred that was fostered, and the propaganda-induced mistrust, at times it must have felt far easier to find an enemy rather than a friend.

Yet God sets the table in the presence of enemies and in the presence of perceived hate. God is the original revolutionary host.

The image of the table in Psalm 23 proves troubling, and I understand why. It is a rude disruption, an odd image, in the middle of what is otherwise a very pastoral picture of green grass, running water, shepherds and sheep. The image of the table seems to be at odds with the words of trust expressed in Psalm 23. Perhaps the table is another opportunity the psalmist uses to express the steadfastness of God’s love and provision.

Take a moment and imagine the table. What does it look like? Where is it? What is on it? Is it a lavish feast? Is it a simple meal? Where are you in relation to the table? 

Very often, I assume that I am already sitting down at the table, that I’m being served. My enemies are off to the side, lurking in the background. This table, my table, is God’s way of mocking and taunting my enemies. Divine vindication. In the apartheid context and the reverberations of inequality and lasting imagination that we witnessed, I can only imagine how this sort of divine vindication was, and is, prayed for in South Africa.

We understand our God to be a God of invitation – a God of hospitality. This surely can be surmised by the image of God laying a table in Psalm 23. According to God, all are welcome at the table. What if we imagined ourselves standing beside the table, not yet sitting? Our enemies are there too, also unseated. The table is being set and the invitation has come to everyone. We are now left with a choice: do we sit or do we remain standing?

This choice is a big one. It puts us at great risk. We risk giving up what we think we know and what we assume to be true about those with whom we share the table. To sit, to accept the invitation, implies that we lay our enmity aside. To sit together at the table God has laid means we have accepted the invitation to be in relationship with God and therefore in relationship with one another. This relationship transforms our very being and the very nature of the relationships we have – enemies included. We risk being wrong, being humbled. We risk growing to love someone whom we wanted, and perhaps even vowed, to hate. We risk discovering we hold common experiences. We risk seeing one another as created in the image of God.

In South Africa, many are still pondering the decision. Some have chosen to sit down. Some have chosen to walk away. Some desire to sit, but past pain and betrayal gives them pause. The challenge in South Africa is to remember that the invitation is always open.

Eating together, enemies no more
Throughout the biblical narrative, we observe repeated demonstrations of God’s love and generosity, glimpses of kingdom politics, and transformative revolution through the rubric of hospitality. Jesus relies on giving and receiving the gift of hospitality throughout his ministry and many key moments in his ministry take place at the table. Food was a tool often used by Jesus to instruct his followers on how we are to emulate the welcome Jesus himself offers.

Coming from the Anabaptist tradition, we take notions of hospitality very seriously. Matthew 25: 31-46 has become the bedrock upon which stands a pillar of the Anabaptist faith expression famously articulated by Menno Simons in his description of “true evangelical faith.’ Clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting those in prison, healing the sick. These acts of revolutionary love in the face of need are not just acts of love as Jesus taught, they are acts of love for Jesus.

The challenge in South Africa is to allow oneself to see Jesus in neighbors and enemies alike. The challenge is to resist the ingrained reaction of slamming the door and to conscientiously practice the hospitality Jesus teaches.


  1. Memoirs of Sam and Morag Ross, p. 47.
  2. Christine Pohl and Pamela J. Buck, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 64.
  3. Noel Moules, Fingerprints of Fire, Footprints of Peace: A Spiritual Manifesto from a Jesus Perspective (UK: Circle Books, 2012), p. 164.
  4. Christine Pohl, Making Room, pp. 74-75.