Month: June 2016

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.

[2 Timothy 2:15 NRSV]

The first of the several groups that I met with during my week in South Africa was a contingent of 12 theological students who are being lodged in the guest house of the congregation of Phodisa Ditshaba.  [Click on any image to enlarge]

If you want to become a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Africa your education will cost you nothing. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Africa pays all expenses for its seminarians.

However, in recent months, their education was discontinued due to some complex economic issues, and the students were sent home from the seminary to their respective dioceses.

The guest house at Phodisa Ditshaba

The guest house at Phodisa Ditshaba

Bishop Sihlangu and his staff made the decision to keep them together, lodging them in the guest house. Here they study together, they are in community, they are fed and housed, and serve congregations. At some point hopefully in the near future, they will return to the seminary, where they will again have lecturers and professors, which is their biggest need right now.

“If they were to return to their homes,” Bishop Sihlangu said, “we would have lost some of them. Some come from homes where there is no electricity. They would not have been able to study at night. Here, we feed them, we house them, we care for their basic needs.”

Meeting with theological Students (2)We were scheduled to meet for only a couple hours. Instead, we spent the entire afternoon together. I wanted to hear their stories, I wanted to know why they felt this strong call to ministry, especially when they could have found more lucrative employment in other professions.

They shared their stories with me. One of the young men felt called from the time he was nine years old. A couple of them were children of pastors. Yet another, turned his back on a career in information technology, which he had decided to pursue simply to please his parents.

In our conversations, Stephen Tefu (center) emerged as one of the more vocal of theological students.

In our conversations, Stephen Tefu (center) emerged as one of the more vocal of theological students.

It was a fascinatingly enjoyable day. Though my heart ached for their current setback, I was inspired by their perseverance and determination. Throughout our time together, they never once sounded a note of unhappiness. On the contrary, they radiated hope, the likes of which the apostle Paul speaks of in Romans 5: We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

One of the ways they share that hope and that joy is by singing. They have formed a choir which becomes a means of evangelism. They visit congregations and sing at services. We were treated to a command performance which was moving, to say the least. We offer here a small sample of their praise in this video.

 

A closing prayer at the end of our day together with the theological students.

A closing prayer at the end of our day together with the theological students.

We closed out the day in prayer. It was purely spontaneous on my part, but I felt it was the least I could do at the moment. This encounter set the tone for the rest of my time in the Northern Diocese.

Please keep these students in prayer. When they return to normal classes and how the economic situation will be resolved is yet to be determined. But it hasn’t dimmed their faith. And for that we say, “Thanks be to God.”

 

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

[1 Thessalonians 1:2-3 NRSV]

So how do I begin to detail my visit to the Northern Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Africa?

Initially, I wanted to give a daily diary of places I visited, people I met and events I witnessed. But a piecemeal report of that nature also calls for reflection, otherwise it becomes a travelogue without significance.

The other item I began to take into account is that I was seeing all these people, places and events for the first time; whereas, there are several people in Northeastern Ohio who have visited our companion synod in the past and may consider my new discoveries as somehow disregarding their past history with those whose lives they were able to touch in that region.

Jake Dikobo

Jake Dikobo

So let me start with that background in mind. I mentioned in my last post that our main goal while in South Africa was reestablish the relationship between the Northeastern Ohio Synod and the Northern Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Africa ELCSA. We once had a committee that was very involved in global mission and a partnership with our companion synod. They have made several visits there and hosted several people here as well. People like Jake Dikobo, who recounted to us with fondness every detail of his visit to the United States in 1995. He remembered dates, places and people as if it had been just last week.

Jake Dikobo (center) speaks with the bishops after worship on Sunday.

Jake Dikobo (center) speaks with the bishops after worship on Sunday.

For a variety of reasons our committee has been inactive for several years. Some have moved, some have died, some have gotten older while yet others have refocused their passion on to other interests. As I return I hope to communicate with some of those people to learn from them what fueled their passion initially for this ministry.

So this reengagement is an opportunity for a fresh start.

On my first day, Pastor Terrance Jacob and I met with Bishop SWS Sihlangu simply to get to know him. I experienced him to be a very humble man. He was elected in 2010 and will continue to serve until his retirement in two years.

Bishops in ELCSA do not serve terms, by the way. They are elected until they reach the mandatory retirement age of 65. Then they are given the status of Bishop Emeritus. They may continue to serve in whatever capacity they can, supplying as parish pastors or preachers, but they can hold no official office.

Bishop SWS Sihlangu at his office in Polakwane.

Bishop SWS Sihlangu at his office in Polakwane.

Bishop Sihlangu has three predecessors still residing in his diocese. Their photos hang on the wall behind his desk. You can make of that what you want. However, their presence does not pose a challenge to his authority. By contrast, he seems rather comfortable in his own self-identity.

He gave us a small slice of what goes on in the diocese, which is sub-divided into circuits – the equivalent of our conferences here in Northeastern Ohio. There are six circuits that are further sub-divided into parishes and each parish has several congregations. So the parish pastor is a pastor to all those congregations.

The diocesan office shares a building with a congregation, Phodisha Ditshaba, where we were able to meet with their Women’s Prayer League, their Youth League, and 12 theological students who are being housed temporarily in the guest house, due to some financial issues that have forced the seminary to send the students back to their respective dioceses. That is a topic that merits its own story. More about that in another post.

We visited three congregations, a circuit center, and also met with the Young Adult League of St. Paul’s Congregation in Polakwane. On Saturday we drove four hours to be with the Executive Committee of the Young Adults League of the diocese, and capped it off with a joyous, Spirit-filled worship service on Sunday, which was led by the Young Adults.

So now that you have some background, with God’s help I’ll begin to further detail the visit over the next several days.

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