Rev Bhekinkhosi Simon Sibanyoni was born on 6 June 1941. He matriculated at Mkhomazi High School in Mpumalanga. He obtained a BA(Hons) degree in Practical Theology and a MA in Practical Theology from the University of Pretoria.
In his thesis, A pastoral care response to the false philosophy that poverty breeds deep spirituality, the promovendus succeeds in accurately locating the spiritual problem that faces some of the Nazarene preachers, who promise through their preaching to congregants pie in the sky, while the poor continue to suffer. His research is also born out of his own experience of poverty in the ministry. The process affected and divided his own family, who started questioning this doctrine full of false promises. Furthermore, the pain and lack of payment within the church caused him to search for a new paradigm of caring for the poor through preaching. Using both stories of other colleagues and available literature, he created a new module of caring for the poor, the clergy as well as their families. His work challenges Pentecostals, Reformed as well as Nazarene churches who believe that worldly problems will be solved in the next world. The main issue is ignoring to deal with the problems that affect people in this world. He concluded his research by suggesting the following words to fundamentalist preachers: >these false preachers are heavenly useful and earthly useless. (Quoted from the Autumn Graduation Ceremony 2009, University of Pretoria, p 27)
A chest near God`s
What title do you prefer, Reverend or Doctor?, I asked as we walked out of Reverend Bhekinkhosi Sibanyoni`s Soweto home. He froze in the doorway between a brisk June wind and the warmth from the kitchen. I wondered if this warmth radiated from Maria, the Reverend`s wife, welcoming smile or the bubbling pot of Chinese cabbage from his vegetable garden. He looked perplexed. The Catholics call me Father. My own congregation call me Reverend. I prefer Pastor, but I suppose I should get used to Doctor.
A remarkable achievement
Reverend Sibanyoni achieved the exceptional: a doctoral degree in Practical Theology, University of Pretoria. He started his studies with the Centre of Contextual Ministries when this Centre was still located at Vista University. Prof. Malan Nel, Director of the Centre, helped him to enrol for two Advanced courses with the Centre. After the successful completion of the two Advanced Courses the Faculty of Theology at the University of Pretoria admitted him into their Honours Degree program. The unique course structure of courses within the Centre enables students to construct a post-graduate degree program within the Department of Practical Theology. The full program of the Centre entails Advanced and basic courses ranging from life skill workshops such trauma counselling, eating disorders, sexuality, counselling of addictive persons, effective leadership, stewardship and financial planning and many more.
Most of the spiritual leaders from disadvantaged communities lack formal training and practical skills to shepherd their congregations. The Centre was initially established to equip these spiritual leaders, but has expanded to include community leaders. Unfortunately these leaders are dependent on small salaries from cash-strapped communities. The Centre, therefore, relies heavily on donor funding to provide bursaries. It is through such a bursary that the Reverend completed his PhD.
Finding his calling
The Reverend was not always employed in God`s service. Years ago he was a furniture salesman. He soon abandoned this career when his calling became clear. At 35 he enrolled for a course at a Bible College, but was disappointed with the content. The crux of this course was pastoral training, but he felt that his Aservice was not inside the church but outside.
Taking the church to the community unearthed challenging contradictions. From the pulpit he would preach that God will provide to a congregation entrapped by hunger and poverty. Years later this contradiction would form the basis of his thesis.
Suffering is not the way to heaven
I was interested in the Reverend`s opinion on Mother Theresa`s conviction that the way to heaven is through suffering. His response was unwavering: "Suffering is not spirituality. Man can endure hardship, but not with a family." Pondering this, I said: "Maybe that is why Jesus` disciples were single?" "All except for Peter", was the Reverend`s swift reply.
I am a family man
Like Peter, Bheki is a family man. His family always comes first. If a Pastor cannot minister to his own family, how can he minister to a community? With this statement I sensed that there were times when he doubted his ability as the head of his family and church. Who would not doubt themselves if they stand at the helm of heartbreak and suffering? The family knows both concepts intimately; his biggest loss being the passing of their daughter. She left a lingering presence in their home and hearts. The Reverend even dedicated his doctoral degree in her memory.
One of few Black marriage officers
Being married for 39 years makes Bheki an expert on relationships. He has enough practical experience to weave through his marriage counselling sessions. But his work with couples started long before the counselling. With a slight smile curling on his face, he tells me that he was marriage officer during apartheid. His licence, however, was unusual. He was one of few who could perform marriages throughout South Africa and in the homelands. In those days weddings were an ordeal. The ceremonies were held on Saturday. Bheki had to travel to the wedding venues, which were often in other provinces. Then he would have to stay for the entire weekend because he could only register the marriage certificate on the Monday at the local Bantu Affairs office.
Although the Reverend is not retired (a fact he emphasises empathically), he does not travel anymore. In 2004, he accepted a position at the Church of Nazarene in Soweto a decision to accommodate his family. He remembers how he asked his daughter`s permission to uproot them. She asked me how many people were in the congregation. I said that there are only five. Then she asked if I knew them and I said yes. I know them all very well. One is me; the other is your mother, you, your brother and your son.
And so the family moved to a vandalised church building to start a congregation. Starting a church out of a dilapidated building and estranged churchgoers is gruelling. From the range of neighbours surrounding the church, it was the older parishioners who were the first to return. Although not excluding young people, Bheki prefers working with the older members of his congregation. Young people are too secretive. It is easier to work with older people. They wear their chests closer to God. They seldom keep a grudge because they know they can go to God at any time.
His title might have changed, but Reverend Bheki is still the same man: a loving father, a devoted husband and fervent man of God. He is still the same, but he has accomplished the extraordinary.
Above: Reverend Bheki grows Chinese cabbage on an open plot next to the church.