“Growing up, I was never alone,” says Nokukhanya Shabalala '16. With 17 brothers and sisters, Nokukhanya never lacked a playmate. Food, however, was sometimes hard to come by.
“With so many siblings, you learn to eat fast!” she laughs. Noks (her preferred name) is brimming with tales about growing up in a large South African family. Some of her stories are delightful; it’s easy to imagine Noks playing soccer with her brothers and taking on the role of “teacher” with her sisters. But other stories aren’t so easy to recall; Noks’ mother, Sylvia, died when Noks was only seven.
A common thread runs through Noks’ stories. “God has been faithful to me all my life,” she says.
Eighth grade was a year of “firsts” for Noks. Although it was clear to her family that she was born with travel in her veins — she took her first solo bus trip when she was in grammar school — Noks was unaware of the world beyond South Africa.
“I didn’t know there was an ‘overseas’ until my friends introduced me to the music of the Spice Girls,” she laughs.
Grace was so enticing. In ancestor worship, you have to perform rituals to keep the ancestors happy. But grace meant I didn’t have to do anything to keep God happy with me.
Later that year, Noks’ father enrolled her in Siyathemba Secondary School, Dierkisdorp, South Africa. “My father did not realize it was a Christian school started by Lutheran missionaries,” she explains. “All he knew was that the girls who went there received the best education.” In fact, Noks’ family practiced ancestor worship, the belief that spirits interact with and impact the daily lives of the living.
“Ancestor worship leads to a lot of fear,” Noks explains. “You are always striving to appease the ancestors. When something goes wrong, it means the ancestors are displeased. Sometimes, when things were very hard, a witch doctor would act as an intermediary between us and the ancestors. He would throw animal bones on the floor and if they pointed at you, you were the problem.”
While in her first year of school, Noks was introduced to the concept of grace. “Grace was so enticing,” she exclaims. “In ancestor worship, you have to perform rituals to keep the ancestors happy,” she explains. “But grace meant I didn’t have to do anything to keep God happy with me.” Noks was overcome with relief, but it would take years before the fear of losing the protection of her ancestors would subside.
Noks Shabalala smiles with a little girl she met while serving on a Seminary mission team to Guatemala. Photo courtesy of Noks Shabalala.
“I will never forget the day I finally told my family that I was a Christian,” she says solemnly. Surrounded by aunts and siblings — some of whom she had helped raise — her father invoked the spirits of her ancestors to remove their blessing and protection from her.
“I remember crying and praying, ‘Jesus, You had better be real. Because if You are not, I have just lost everything,'” Noks says. But God would not abandon Noks. Over the coming years, Noks experienced God’s unwavering faithfulness and grace.
In 2004, Noks graduated high school and joined Themba Trust, the Lutheran fundraising organization that supports Siyathemba Secondary School. She was asked to relocate to Germany and serve Themba Trust as Kommunication Botschafterin (Communication Ambassadress). This was just the beginning of Noks’ world travels and theological study.
In 2010, Noks was selected to pilot the Deaconess Studies program at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Pretoria, South Africa. She found she was well-suited for seminary life. Fueled by the encouragement of her pastor, professors and mentors, Noks enrolled in the Pre-Deaconess Studies program at Concordia University Irvine. She completed her studies in only three years before boarding yet another plane — this time, headed for China. She led vacation Bible schools and taught English and German to Chinese middle school students.
I remember crying and praying, ‘Jesus, You had better be real. Because if You are not, I have just lost everything.'
Today, Noks is knee-deep in her theological studies at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, where she is working towards her Master of Arts, Spiritual Care major. Noks’ commitment to her theological training is matched by her hands-on approach to ministry. She spends her free time partnering with Caring Ministries, an organization that tends to the practical and spiritual needs of the refugee community in St. Louis’ Hodiamont neighborhood. Noks believes serving this community is preparing her for the next chapter of her life. After completing her program at the Seminary, she hopes to return to Africa to care for and minster to former child soldiers.
Since leaving her home at age 14 to study at Siyathemba Secondary School, Noks has shared the Gospel around the world in multiple languages (she is fluent in 11). “When you are immersed in a culture, you have no choice but to learn the language if you want to communicate,” she says. That’s true in more ways than one. “My education at Concordia Seminary is equipping me to serve those who have lost everything,” she says. “I am learning how to share the Gospel in ways that others can hear. I am learning to speak the language of those who suffer.”
Noks’ journey spans four continents, takes place in multiple countries and crosses three oceans. As a child, Noks was never alone. The same is true today. It is clear that God’s Spirit has been her companion and guide every step of the way.
Noks’ journey has been a long one — and it is only just beginning.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of the Concordia Seminary magazine.