Working with young people in South Africa

We interviewed Scripture Union's Simbongile Cele about her Christian faith, her daily work with young people and some of the realities youth are facing in South Africa.
Simbongile (or Sim), please share a little about yourself and how you ended up in youth ministry.

Hi, my name is Sim and I am from Sheppie or Port Shepstone as it is formally known. I have lived here pretty much all my life except for short stints in Durban and the US. I committed my life to Jesus in 2006 and almost immediately started serving in youth and children’s ministry. I haven’t stopped serving in youth and children’s ministry since then besides a small break. I have sometimes fought the Lord on this but in the last few years I have let go and trusted God with the path He has put me on.

How did you come to know Jesus?

I grew up in a church going family and so always assumed I am a Christian but I just wasn’t sure what I was missing. When I met my high school best friend and she invited me to youth and a different church, I began to learn a lot about faith and personal relationship with Jesus. Something that I hadn’t had before. It happened during a song. Everything kind of just clicked. Everything I had heard in church and youth group, suddenly made sense as to why it applies. Why God hates sin and why we need a Saviour. It made sense.

I stood there in the basement of the church whilst other teenagers worshipped around me, weeping and praying, I gave my life to the Lord and felt the presence of the Holy Spirit on me.

I think from that day on I wanted to know God and know how I can be close to Him.

What do you find helps your walk with the Lord?

Every season is different. Some seasons it’s worship that helps and sometimes it’s the Word only. I find that God knows me and so He will speak to me through things that get my attention. He speaks through different people and messages and verses. What I do that helps me in my walk with the Lord is to have conversations about Him and with Him, to ask friends and pastors or older believers I know and trust about what I don’t understand or want to know more about.

I have a daily devotion using the Lectio 365 app and also set prayer times during the day.

Whilst I am in constant conversation with Jesus setting aside prayer time has changed my heart and helped my mental health.

Whether it be a prayer walk or just sitting in the car and praying.

What does a typical ministry week looks like for you?

We are in school for at least 3 days but usually 4 for about 1 to 2 hours a day depending on the school. Our school groups range from between 20 to about 100 children and so we are always adjusting and being flexible. We also make an effort to connect with Pastors, youth pastors and other ministry workers during the week whether that be for coffee or at one of the 3 fraternal’s in our area.

We also plan ahead for major events or programs including Holiday Bible Club, Life skills and camps.

We also meet principals and teachers and social workers to discuss, pray for and make a plan for helping the more troubled kids. I meet with my mentor at least once every 2 weeks and I have one on one with Garland(best boss ever!) at least once a week. It’s always on the go and busy but it’s amazing work. Sometimes I sit down and don't know how we get through it, but we do because God is in it.

Of these ministry activities in your typical week which are you most passionate about and why?

I'd say our high school group. I think that they are right now having some real tangible moments with the Lord, and it is amazing to see how He is moving in their lives. Most of them have grown up in Christian homes and a few are Hindu or have grown up in Hindu homes. They go to a school that is predominantly Hindu and Muslim and yet every week they come to group and shine their lights for Jesus. God is moving in their hearts, and they are making their faith their own, not relying on others to do so.

I am passionate about equipping them to disciple and witness to their friends whilst remaining strong in faith in the face of adversity.

And I would say camps as well. It is really stressful to prepare and even run but the difference it makes in a child’s life is really something to behold. To get to spend that much time speaking about Jesus to a child and then also watching them make friends and grow in their own personal faith and be equipped, discipled and empowered to do so.

Describe a recent encounter/experience with a young person that left you feeling really encouraged.

Our last sessions before exams with our high school group were special. We spoke on prayer and then did a practical exercise. On a large piece of paper, we wrote “I am believing God for” and had the students write down some impossible things they were believing God for as well as people they were praying for. The Holy Spirit really moved that day.

Students were praying for each other and sharing what they have kept hidden, including grief and praying for parents with cancer.

It was such a moment of breakthrough. It encouraged me greatly as I am in my own season of believing for breakthrough and for the salvation, healing and deliverance of family members. We got to speak about this and we prayed for each other and the cost of believing. It was just such a great moment and led to a deeper connection with students. So grateful for them and for that opportunity.

What are some of the challenges young people are facing in your context?

A lot. Most of them are dealing with or coming from broken homes and also struggling with mental health or have dealt with depression and anxiety. A lot are also struggling with grief they haven’t dealt with for years and they have been shoving it down.

The political and economic landscape in South Africa is also a challenge as we see the effects of it for the poorest children.

Right now a big thing we are seeing is ancestral worship or young children being forced into “callings” or calling activities as well as into being initiated into these activities. There is also a lot of pressure from social media to be someone else or to believe something you don’t just because it is trending. Issues around identity and worth.

What scripture or story from the Bible is particularly meaningful for you and why?

I have many and the Lord has been faithful in reminding me that His word is His voice. Every year I have a verse for the year that I cling to and that steers me somewhat. Last year was Isaiah 43:18-19 which says “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” This year is 1 Thessalonians 5:24 which says "Faithful and absolutely trustworthy is He who is calling you [to Himself for your salvation], and He will do it [He will fulfil His call by making you holy, guarding you, watching over you, and protecting you as His own].”

These past few years have been filled with great challenges for me and for my family and even in coming back to full time and I found that I needed to level up my faith to believe God for the everyday and for the impossible. I really identify with Peter as a follower of Jesus. He messed up so often and had doubts and then faith and then hid but he always came back to Jesus. He is someone I really love reading about and seeing how he learnt to trust Jesus even in the hardest times and that he trusted what Jesus was doing through him.

If you had the opportunity to speak to young people from across our country, what few thoughts would you share with them?

Everything you are searching for can be found in Jesus. Lonely? He is your companion. Afraid? He is your shield. Longing to be loved? His love is unconditional. Feeling like an outcast? He was rejected by his own people. There is nothing you can do that can separate you from him. He loves you. And every other thing that would try to take your attention from Him is a cheap counterfeit.

Don’t wait until you’re older to make the decision to follow Him. Do it now because there is freedom, unconditional love and hope to be found in Him.

Also if you need help, look for it and find it. You don’t have to do life alone, there are people to help and you can also be a help to others. There can be a better tomorrow for you and for our country but it’s in your hands and in the Bible. Love yall.

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Author: Xavier Moran
Xavier is the managing editor of SU Mag. He has a love for story, whether it comes in the form of a book, a movie, a series, a poem, or a play. He lives in the small sea side town of Fish Hoek with his wife and two teenage children.
Published: 6 July 2023
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