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.
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.
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 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.