The history of Kenosis goes back to the early 1980s, when Prof Gunther Wittenberg and Rev Gert Landmann had a dream of establishing a religious community within the Lutheran Church.
They were both deeply concerned at the state of the church and the way Apartheid had divided the South African Lutheran Family. Perhaps a religious community, living together could be a sign and a vehicle of reconciliation to both sides. Independent community members would also be able to serve the church in many ways, without demanding a salary from the church.
They shared their dream with their colleagues in the theological training programme, with congregations and Bible study groups. But for many years it remained only a dream. Then suddenly the possibilities crystalized, when the Hayfields congregation decided to sell part of its property in Bishopstowe, to help pay for the new church in Hayfields.
With help from the Bavarian Mission this property was purchased in 1989, with a Trust formed for this purpose. But still the next steps in the process to establish the community were unclear. A group of people formed to help pray for this vision, and in travels and visits to communities the vision became stronger. Gert Landmann particularly was highly motivated and had a deep interest in spiritual enrichment for the church. He planned to leave his post as chaplain and start the community in Bishopstowe.
In January 1990, Gerd Landmann was shot dead by a hitchhiker he had given a lift to. This threw all the plans about Kenosis into disarray again. It seemed the property would stand unused for many more years to come. However many encouraging words came urging those with the vision of Kenosis not to give up the dream. Crucial in this were the visits by Prof Wittenberg to the communities in Grandchamp and Selbitz, who became very important supporters and an inspiration in the process to establish the community.
A turning point was the visit by Prof and Mrs Wittenberg to the community Ushirika wa Neema in Tanzania, which became an initial model for the community at Bishopstowe. Two South African Women, Elke Kaiser and Thandekile Hlongwane were sponsored by the Bavarian Mission to spend some time in the community in 1995. Now things started moving and Gunther and Monika Wittenberg sold their house and moved to Bishopstowe in October 1995.
Following the model of the Tanzanian community, the programme started with a one-year training for women in various aspects of community and church work, which continued for several years. Most women returned home to their parishes as volunteers, some studied theology. Happiness Khumalo was the first woman to stay on to become a full-time member of the community as a sister. Thandekile Hlongwane also remained a community member, later becoming a foster mother in the diaconical project.
The community had always had as its goal to serve the church and surrounding community with Christian love. In 1997 the needs of the community were thrown into sharp focus when a baby was born on the Kenosis property, and her HIV positive mother died soon afterwards. Alarmed and convicted, Kenosis mobilised and joined up with Pietermaritzburg network CINDI (Children in Distress) to explore possibilities of becoming involved in the care of children displaced by Aids. This resulted in the establishment of the AIDS Orphans project, with the establishment of three foster homes for children who were placed with Kenosis by Child Welfare.
The foster homes were integrated with the other accommodation of employees, helping children to grow up in a village environment. A crèche was also established to cater for the children of the village and the farms and settlements around Bishopstowe. Two groups of German volunteers led by a sister from Selbitz, came to help in the building process.
Throughout its existence, the community has had to deal with many changes, and challenges from its surroundings and its shifting relationship to the church. The one year training had to be discontinued and the focus shifted more to the diaconical projects, including Outreaches to the Table Mountain community and the Kids’ Weeks during the holidays.
A retreat centre was purchased and performed a valuable service for several years, but then had to be sold, because of financial difficulties. Nevertheless the community has continued to consider what its calling is in its location in Bishopstowe. Two more young women came to join the sisterhood and many young people from Germany spent a year as Kenosis volunteers, returning to their home with a deeper understanding of Christian service.
Today, a more rationalised Kenosis still pursues the maintenance of its core projects with faith, vigour and purpose. While income generation still remains challenging, there are many friends and well-wishers who continue to support Kenosis (spiritually and financially); and with whose encouragement, the community has consolidated and again launched out to offer on a smaller scale, a facility for Weddings, Seminars, Retreats and self-catering accommodation.