Five Miracles and a DMin later, Namibian Leader Magdalena Ya-Shalongo is Ready to Go Home

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Magdalena is the first woman to have been ordained in her African country,and the first Namibian female pastor to receive an MAR and DMin. Now she wants to help her church become more adept at planning to make a difference for Christ.

Magdalena Ya-Shalongo

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Magdalena Ya-Shalongo, the first woman to be ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Namibia, and now about to receive her DMin from LTSP, understands what miracles are all about.

“I should have died on five occasions by now,” Magdalena explained. “The only reason I am still alive is because I believe God has a powerful mission in mind for my ministry.”

The first threat to her life came in the beginning. She was born prematurely in a house in the northern part of Namibia. Her mother had to be hospitalized. Her incubator was a collection of olive tree leaves, a custom of her African culture believed to help her grow faster. Because her life was in such jeopardy she was baptized within six days.

Soon, because Magdalena’s mom was hospitalized in a coma (she did survive), Magdalena was gently placed in a basket. Her grandmother then walked with the basket 16 kilometers (nearly 10 miles) to her grandparents’ home for care.

She was raised by her grandparents until age 7 before returning home. “My grandmother was a great influence. She took me to Sunday School, and I learned to read by reading the Bible,” Magdalena said.

At age 3, Magdalena said she was swimming in a natural pool and nearly drowned. She sank twice, gulping water, before she indicated “God guided my body to the edge of the pool, and I was safe.”

When she was about 15 she was reading a catalog and her Bible by candlelight at bedtime and fell asleep. The candle burned down onto the catalog and the table beside her bed caught fire. “I awoke about 5:00 am covered with ashes,” she said. “Somehow the fire extinguished itself. If the grass roof above had caught fire I would have died for sure.”

In 1981, during the war fought over Namibia’s independence from South Africa, she went to a post office to buy a stamp. “When I came out I saw a group of South African soldiers who had returned from fighting along the Angolan border. One of them drew his bayonet and pushed it against my neck, threatening to cut my throat. For five minutes he held the knife against my throat saying he intended to kill me. He was very angry. We just stared into each other’s eyes. Finally he let me go, told me ‘You’re very lucky’ and just left.” Magdalena was close to tears as she recalled the episode.

Magdalena has many reasons to become emotional about her youth. Her homeland, rich in minerals and natural resources coveted by South Africa, was engaged in a war for independence about 17 years while she was growing up. Her father was forced by law to spend 18 months at a time about 1,500 miles south of the family home where he worked as a carpenter in the Orangemund Diamond Mine. “On weekends my father taught miners Bible and the Catechisms so they could be baptized,” she said. “Whenever he was away we worried about where he might be, as there were many stories of people who simply disappeared in those days.”

But her dad always came home, taught Magdalena and her siblings carpentry skills, and built a church in her village. “If a door is not working properly,” she smiled, “I know how to fix it.”

Finally in 2006 while serving as a hospital chaplain she fell gravely ill, the result of a fibroid tumor. At one point she lost consciousness. A week later she received surgery that saved her life. “I felt so ill at one point I thought my life was ending and I prayed to God that I would be prepared to go to my spiritual home.” She completely recovered.

As a secondary school student, Magdalena became concerned for a student who was being bullied by other youths because he had not been baptized. (Ninety percent of Namibia’s 2.1 million inhabitants are Christian, the majority of them Lutheran because of the influence of Finnish missionaries.) Magdalena worked with the young man every Friday for nine months. “I asked the church if it would be OK for me to do this teaching,” she remembered. “I received permission. This young man was very bright. He memorized the Small Catechism easily.” Magdalena was then 18, and her student was 25. Others who saw the results of her teaching thought she should attend seminary to become a pastor, but her church was not yet ready to ordain women. Magdalena instead decided to attend schooling to become a teacher. A year later she changed her mind and went to seminary.

After completing seminary in 1990, she was “blessed” as a theologian and wore the garb (cream-colored blouse and maroon suit) of a theologian. Her church then decided it would ordain women, “but we had to apply,” Magdalena said. Many women who qualified resented the idea of applying when men did not need to. Magdalena sought advice about what to do from the women’s department of the Lutheran World Federation. She was then serving as director of the women’s organization for her church. “They advised me to do what it takes to receive ordination,” Magdalena said. And so at age 30 in 1992, pregnant with her third child and on the delivery due date, Magdalena Ya-Shalongo stood for three hours for the ordination event. “Some were advising me to put off my ordination until after the birth of my child,” she said. Many men involved seemed especially nervous. “But I told them I am not going there. If the baby is born, we could do the baptism right there.” Her child, Nathaniel, now 20, was born the next Sunday after ordination day one week later. (She and husband, Arvid, have three other children — Rakel, 23; Hilja, 22; and Shilongo, 18. Tresia, 26, a gift from a cousin at the time of her wedding, is now in medical school in China. The gift of a child is part of Namibia’s tradition.

Magdalena has been adding firsts to her career. In 2000 she became the first Namibian female pastor to earn a Master of Arts in Religion. Her husband, Arvid, also a pastor, had received the same degree from LTSP two years earlier. Now she will become the first Namibian female pastor to earn a DMin, anticipating her return home by the end of this year.

“When I was in Namibia after obtaining my MAR I heard a chorus of my male counterparts complaining about why, in their view, women who are pastors do not like to study,” she said. “I decided I would get my DMin in part to serve as an example to other women about the importance of education.”

In earning this second degree, Magdalena says she is deeply grateful to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Global Ministry initiative and to the seminary for their support “in equipping me with the kinds of skills that enable me to be fully myself, the kind of person God intends me to be.” She singled out her advisors, Professors David Grafton and Richard Stewart (who recently retired). And she also expressed gratitude to Prof. Katie Day for conducting many of her church and society classes “on the ground, in the heart of Philadelphia’s urban setting.” Dean Jayakiran Sebastian “has always encouraged me to bring the context of my Namibian roots to the table” in class discussions,” she said.

Her thesis is on “Leadership and Administration.” By graduating this year at age 50, she says she will have met her degreed educational goals by the year 2014. Back home in Namibia she plans to use her skills to help her church become better at strategic planning, among other things. “If we do not undertake strategic planning, including stewardship planning, as a discipline I think we will just talk and talk and get nowhere,” Magdalena said. She may undertake these practical steps either through working in a denominational post, or perhaps teaching at seminary. How her exact career path takes shape will become evident soon, she said. She doesn’t seem concerned about it.

As Magdalena Ya-Shalongo said before, “I think God has saved my life so many times because there is a mission plan for my ministry.”

Amen.

Watch the extended interview: