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A tribute to Bishop Sibusiso Donga: An open letter from the border to all pastors

By Father Hlakanipha Mbongolwane

I have been thinking of you dear pastors these past weeks, particularly following the death of Bishop Sibusiso Donga (pictured).

The late Bishop Sibusiso Donga
The late Bishop Sibusiso Donga

The Christian church and Zimbabwe as a whole woke up recently in shock at the untimely death of Bishop Donga, a death that prompted me to rethink about the mystery of death.

You and I, of course, know that death has no final say. But this does not mean that all the pain, sadness and anguish have been taken out of it.

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I find it difficult to let a friend or relative go into that country of no return. Disbelief becomes my close companion, and anger follows in its wake.

I answer the question, ‘Death where is your sting?’ with “It is here in my heart and mind and memories.”

Such was my first reaction at the death of this great man. I realised that death is an enormous reality though there is a tendency to deny it or at least cover it up. Undertakers do their utmost to pretty it up.

Preachers often use soothing phrases and euphemisms when talking about it. All this is counter-productive. What best helps us confront death is, of course, our Christian faith. Faith enables us to face death with courage and hope because we know we can conquer it in Christ.

Although we still have to face the pain and anguish of death, because of Christ’s victory over it, the sting has been taken out of death.

Or rather, the sting is still there but it is no longer fatal. It would be nice if when death comes all our work was done, all our tasks completed.

With the death of Bishop Donga I realised we cannot be sure of this because the moment of death is hidden from us.

Zimbabwe International Trade Fair Hall Three was fully packed with all and sundry to bid farewell to this man and it is the life of this man that prompted me to write you this letter dear pastor.

While many things were said about Bishop Donga, there are several things which I want to bring to your attention of which you can take a leaf from this great man.

The first time I met Bishop Donga what struck me most was his openness to share about his life.

He was just himself. He had always wanted to marry a Catholic nun, this he wanted to do not out of mischief but ignorance. He later married Nomazulu Mabhena a very Catholic young lady. Sibusiso was not afraid to let himself be known. But we sometimes are as pastors. We refuse to let others in our lives.

Perhaps it is fear of rejection that holds us back. We fear that if people really knew us for the imperfect people we are, they would reject us.

The emergence of the true self is especially hard in public life dear pastor. We want always to put a certain image to win approval, identify with “resurrection miracles”.

But the emergence of true self emerges when we follow our conscience, and are brave enough to risk stepping out of line.

As I listened to the eulogies at the funeral of Bishop Donga I realised the emergence of true self in his life was a result of long years of humility, it was a slow and beautiful growth through all stages of his life.

The real aim in life dear pastor is to become ourselves, to allow barriers to come down so that the deepest “I” can emerge. It is not about becoming what others want us to be, or crying out to get attention at any price by being drama kings and queens of miracles.

We as pastors are strange pilgrims journeying to become who we really are. It would be sad to live and die and never to have been ourselves, never to have told our story.

Bishop Donga was a very hospitable person. One of the nicest things in life is to meet an open, friendly, warm and hospitable person. Hospitality is a hallmark of a true follower of Christ. For the followers of Christ, hospitality is not an optional extra.

It is at the very heart of the gospel. It is strange, dear pastor, how our homes are always open to receive God’s sunshine and fresh air, but not always open to receive a child of God, especially when he comes in poverty. Bishop Donga went at a time when there is more need than ever for hospitality and friendliness.

In the world today there is a lot of loneliness and there are lots of strangers, aliens and displaced people. Much of our lives is spent in keeping people out. We have private houses, private clubs and private jets pastors! Of course, there are times when we need to be alone.

Yet there is a sense in which our size as human beings can be measured by the circles we draw to take people in: the smaller the circle, the smaller the person. Bishop Donga had a bigger circle because of his friendliness and hospitality.

Dear pastor, by shutting other people out, especially the poor, we deny ourselves the riches of other people’s experiences. We starve our minds and harden our hearts. In the beginning God gave the earth its shape. He made it round. He included everybody. Bishop Donga mastered this wisdom early in his life.

Apart from hospitality, Bishop Donga was a man of faith. In the video played at his memorial service he speaks of preaching to virgin lands. He acknowledges that he does not know how his dream would come about, but he trusted God will see him through.

It is his boldness and vulnerability which touched me in that video. I would not want to romanticise Bishop Donga’s journey of faith, God alone knows the difficulties he encountered. Dear pastor faith does not always make things easy. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be the case. It is because we have faith that we refuse to give up.

Faith impels us to persevere, to struggle on, often with no guarantee of a happy outcome. We can identify with Bishop Donga because we too as pastors we are in a journey of faith. We do not know where it will take us.

Faith begins with a call from God in some shape or form. God calls us forward away from idols of money, fame, silly miracles, out of where we are now, not necessarily into new location, but into a new vision, new values, a new way of living.

That life is a journey of faith we see it in the life of Bishop Donga. However, we must not understand it in too linear a fashion.

It is not that simple. Even with the best faith in the world, we may end up on dark roads we never imagined or wanted for ourselves. To have faith is not to have all answers. It is to have bearings.

There will be times in each of our lives when we will have to go forward armed only with our courage and faith.

Bishop Donga was a man who could take risks for the sake of the Gospel. When Jesus called his first disciples he invited them to cast their nets into the deeper waters for a catch.

Only men and women of God like Bishop Donga can swim in the deeper waters. Deeper waters demand risk, fearlessness that was Bishop Donga. If we are to win people for Christ we need not swim in shallow waters of seeking miracles.

Casting our nets into the deeper waters means living like John the Baptist who never performed a miracle but Jesus Christ said of him amongst those born of women no one is greater than John (Luke 7:28). John’s mission was to be a witness to the light; (John 1:8) that is your mission dear pastor.

John the Baptist was content to be only a voice, if it caused people to think of Christ. “Am only a voice crying in the wilderness,” says John. Be willing to be only a voice crying in the wilderness of this fallen world that is heard but not seen.

Be willing to be a breeze that arises just before daylight saying The dawn! The dawn! and then fades away. Do the most every day and insignificant tasks knowing that God can see. Trust the Giver of gifts not the gift itself, Mr and Mrs Pastor.

The death of Bishop Donga comes at a time when our credibility as pastors has been tainted by the so-called miracles. This, however, is no reason to be discouraged for this is not the whole picture of the Christian church.

There is need to challenge your flock pastor, not to miss the forest for the trees, frailty and sin while real, tragic and scandalous, never eclipse the superabundant, life-giving grace of God.

The words of Carlo Carretto come to mind here. In one of his books, Carretto admits with disarming honesty the human side of the Christian church but argues that it is not the whole picture. He writes:

“How much I must criticise you my Church, and yet how much I love you! How you have made me suffer much and yet owe much to you. I should like to see you destroyed yet I need your presence. You have given me much scandal and yet you alone have made me understand holiness.

Never in this world have I seen anything more obscurantist, more compromised, more false, and yet never in this world have I touched anything more pure, more generous and more beautiful.

Many at times have felt like slamming the door of my soul in your face and yet how often I have prayed that I might die in your arms! No, I cannot be free of you, for I am one with you, even though not completely you.

Then too -where will I go to build another church? But I cannot build another church without same defects, for they are my own defects I bear within me. And again if I build one, it will be my church no longer Christ’s. No, am old enough to know that am no better than others.

I shall not leave the Christian church, founded on so frail a rock, because I should be founding another one on an even frailer rock: myself. And then, what do rocks matter? What matters is Christ promise, what matters is the cement that binds the rocks into one: the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit alone can build the church with stones as ill hewn as we.”

As the hearse carrying Bishop Donga left the Trade Fair grounds and looking at him sleeping alone at the back of the hearse. I realised that life is just but a personal matter. It dawned on me that life is a fragile gift which we enjoy only briefly. Our life is like warming of oneself in the sun.

We live in flash of light; before we know it, evening comes and night falls. But the very fleetingness of life makes it more precious. Dear Lord, may your gentle and sure light guide us on the unfolding road, so that we may walk with confidence towards the light that never fades and the life that never ends. Go well Donga, lala ngokuthula mfowethu. I remain devotedly yours in Christ dear pastors of the world.

*Fr Mbongolwane is a Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Bulawayo based at Brunapeg Mission. The views expressed here are personal and not of the Archdiocese of Bulawayo or the Catholic Church. The Chronicle