Father Thulani Magwaza accepted the call to serve as Associate Pastor at Saint Sabina in 2009 and later became Pastor.
Fr. Thulani was born in Durban, South Africa during the Apartheid era. He attended Mundelien seminary in the 1980s where he was impressed with St. Sabina's commitment to activism and justice and spent most of his weekends at St. Sabina to learn from Father Pfleger. He developed close friendships with many Saint Sabina members. After graduating, he returned to South Africa and served for over 20 years at St. Martin de Porres in eSikhawini, first as Assistant Pastor and later as Pastor. At St. Martin de Porres, Fr. Thulani shared what he learned at St. Sabina with his new church and introduced them to a more dynamic form of praise and worship.
Father Thulani D. Magwaza arrived at Chicago O’Hare International Airport with two lightly packed suitcases. He has traveled here many times before. But, this time was different. After prayerful consideration, he left his country, his family, and his church to accept the position as Associate Pastor at The Faith Community of St. Sabina. Father Thulani admits that it was challenging to leave. But, he has committed to “journey with (us) as we seek God’s will”. In his letter to the congregation, Thulani writes:
I am a student in the classroom of God’s will and I pray that God will bind us together so that as you share your stories and as I share mine, together we will do what God desires of us.
Thulani Magwaza was born just outside the city of Durban, South Africa during the apartheid era. Blacks were not allowed to live with Whites, attend the same schools, or use the same facilities as Whites. They were denied basic human rights. Blacks were frequently victims of brutality and violence that only intensified as they fought to attain justice and racial equality.
Thulani said it was tough living under such extreme oppressive conditions. But he didn’t allow it to overwhelm him. In fact, he used it to motivate him. After he finished high school, Thulani thought he would become a teacher or lawyer so he applied to several universities. However, he found himself changing his mind and ended up going to Pretoria for seminary studies. At the time, a priest from his diocese was in Chicago, making arrangements for eShowe Diocese students to study at the University of St. Mary at the Lake Mundelein Seminary. In August 1985, Thulani came to Mundelein. A few weeks later, Thulani along with other black theological students attended Chicago’s first Black Catholic Revival at Holy Name Cathedral, which was being coordinated by Father Pfleger. Thulani was so inspired by “this man who was so much in love with the Lord and his community.”
Thulani knew he had to visit St. Sabina, which soon became “his home away from home”. During his years as a Mundelein student, Thulani spent most of his weekends at St. Sabina to learn from Father Pfleger. He participated in a variety of protests and marches to improve the neighborhood along with St. Sabina members and community activists. Father Pfleger organized a protest at the South African Consulate in opposition to the apartheid government in sync with protesters all over the world. Thulani was deeply moved. He began to see people differently, “that we are part of a global village; South Africa’s pain was the world’s pain.”
By the time he completed his studies here and had to return home, Thulani had become close friends with many in the congregation. A group of tearful St. Sabina members went to the airport to see him off. So painful was the parting that one member even got on the plane with him and had to be asked to leave before the plane was preparing for takeoff.
Once in South Africa, Father Thulani was assigned to St. Martin de Porres in eSikhawini, which has been his home for the past 20 years. Thulani served as Assistant Pastor to Rev. Aquilin M. Mpanza who taught him the fundamentals of ministry work. Rev. Mpanza taught Thulani the key to being a good, effective leader was rooted in the willingness to “walk with the people you lead.” Rev. Mpanza instilled in his parishioners the need to be an economically sound, self-sufficient church. St. Martin’s motto is “That They May Be One” ~ “Ukuze Babemunye”. Thulani was greatly influenced by Rev. Mpanza’s love for family, fellowship and his efforts to build a strong sense of community at St. Martin’s.
Thulani formed a new ministry program at St. Martin’s that included a couples’ ministry called Thina Sobabili, a youth and elders group and Sunday School Program. He shared what he learned at St. Sabina with his new church and introduced them to a more dynamic form of praise and worship. Like Father Pfleger, Thulani became known as the “Baptist minister” in the Catholic Church. Thulani doesn’t necessarily agree with the label, and said “being African and Catholic doesn’t mean two different things.” He simply believes it is important to “be yourself in the eyes of God”.
Fr. Thulani attended Catholic masses while traveling in Europe. Thulani saw “how Scottish people celebrate God using their Scottish culture.” He saw the English and Germans celebrate God using their culture. And he questioned, “Why can’t we do the same?” But Thulani found that “Catholics in South Africa had become more Eurocentric than Europeans themselves because they have been made to denounce their culture and whatever it is that defines them.”
European missionaries founded the Catholic Church in South Africa, Thulani explains, and brought along with them their cultural values, traditions and symbols. South Africans were taught to suppress their own culture as it was deemed inferior, barbaric and unacceptable to God. Thulani reports, “It was only after Pope John Paul II said, let the people of Africa express themselves in their own culture and language that things began to change.” Although it would take time to completely recover, Thulani has seen some Catholic churches in South Africa begin to turn around and embrace their cultures and traditions.
Thulani felt encouraged that St. Martin de Porres was so receptive to the programs and new ideas he introduced to them. His church was flourishing and has become a “catalyst for change”. His ministry program not only thrived at St. Martin’s, but was implemented by other churches in his diocese and subsequently was modeled in many Catholic churches in South Africa. When Thulani was asked to join the staff at St. Sabina, it was not an easy decision for him to make. However, he was compelled to answer the call and come because of his love for God and for his family here at St. Sabina.
Thulani still knows people he met at St. Sabina back in 1985. Some members opened up their homes to him when he was a student. Some were kids when he first came here and now they are grown ups. Many became more than friends; they became family. Those connections were strengthened by his regular visits to St. Sabina. In the past 20 years, Thulani has visited here almost every year.
Thulani was welcomed into the Pfleger family and spent a great deal of time with them. He marveled at the love and support they gave one another. Thulani was most affected by Father Pfleger’s resilience and unconditional love for people. It left a lasting impression on Thulani and helped him to become a better pastor.
Thulani believes St. Sabina has changed for the better over the years. But, it appears to me that we have more problems than ever in a community stricken with poverty, violence and hopelessness. Yet, Father Thulani is not intimidated and said:
God did not promise that it would be easy. God has just sent us forth and said, “Go! I will be with you.” Problems are everywhere - problems of poverty, crime, killing, injustice… But, my take on it as a Christian is, God will not take you to a place where His grace will not be there to protect you. I think if we face those problems together, we will be equal to the task. For me, it doesn’t matter if those problems are in Africa or America, if people are committing to the cause, they can overcome any problem or issue they face.
Across the continent, over two oceans, a man with a willing heart comes to us. He has traveled nine thousand miles to get here. Father Thulani says he has come to learn from us. But I say God has smiled on the Faith Community of St. Sabina and blessed us. As we have a lot to learn from Father Thulani.