Elder and lay-preacher at Zenka
Compiled by J.N. from notes by Rev. A. B. Ndebele and others
PHILEMON Ndebele was born in Jingeni near the present Bembesi Railway Siding, and ten miles from the hill on which Ingwenya Mission now stands. The exact date of his birth is not known as no records were kept in those days.
Philemon’s father was known as “Warrior Bahlomela”. He was a member of King Lobengula’s army, but was not necessarily engaged in the final conflict waged between the Matabele and the white forces at Bembesi in 1893, when the Matabele were defeated and King Lobengula fled towards the Gwampa Valley and the Shangani Forest. There is a small stone monument commemorating the battle near the road at Bembesi.
Philemon was an infant at that time, but no doubt in later years he heard many stirring tales of those eventful times being told around the fireside. However, the Lord had better things in store for both Philemon and a considerable number of his compatriots, for in later years they were blessed with spiritual blessings under the preaching of the Word of God.
After the war, small towns were developed, roads were built, and railways were laid. The main road to Harare, now the capital, passed near Philemon’s home. The London Missionary Society had opened a number of small schools in the area where reading, writing, and arithmetic were taught. When Philemon grew to manhood he found work on the railway and attended one of those small schools, which were for adults rather than children.
In 1904 the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland sent out an African missionary, the Rev. John B. Radasi, to Matabeleland. Preaching stations were opened and a small church was built at Bembesi. There Philemon met Mr. Radasi and heard him preach. Philemon told his son, Rev. A. B. Ndebele, how Mr. Radasi impressed on the young men the duty of each buying a Bible as soon as they could, the necessity of studying their Bibles and memorising as much of it as they could. Philemon himself began to read his Bible regularly, and to memorise large portions of it.
Rev. A. B. Ndebele said with reference to his father, “It is impossible to know when Philemon actually experienced the greatest of all changes, his passing from death to life, from the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of God’s dear Son. We believe that his reading of the Scriptures gave place to a more than ordinary interest in the Bible as the Word of God. He confessed to being gripped’ by it! That he gained this knowledge by the illumination of the Holy Spirit is beyond doubt. That Christ was all his salvation and all his desire was very evident. The desire to be cleansed was often on his lips, as was also the Scripture: The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin’, 1 John 1:7.”
Philemon must have become a communicant by 1925, for it was then that he led a small deputation to request Rev. John Tallach, the Free Presbyterian missionary at Ingwenya, that a small school to be opened in their community.
Rev. A. B. Ndebele tells us, in the obituary which he wrote, that by 1927 his father was preaching the Gospel “in a small way'” as Philemon himself put it. “The Gospel of Jesus Christ” was an expression that he often used in his discourses. His love for the gospel was obvious and continued to the end. As long as he was able to do so, he walked and cycled many miles along sandy tracks in scorching heat, to conduct services in various places. He had more than ordinary respect for the “abefundisi” (ministers). He esteemed “them very highly in love for their work’s sake,” 1 Thessalonians 5:13.
Philemon was a humble, inoffensive man, one of the most self-effacing one could meet. Yet he could, when it was really necessary, give such a withering rebuke (ever so rarely!). Always polite and courteous, he could with a few softly spoken sentences, deflate a most difficult person. “God is light,” he often quoted, “and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth,” 1 John 1:5, 6. We believe that his own walking in the truth and in fellowship with God was the reason for his authority, and for the respect which he commanded. He was loved by the people, black and white.
In 1939 he was made an elder. Then in 1945 he removed to Zenka where he and his family built a new home. Around the time of his marriage, Philemon worked for a Swiss-German farmer, Gerber to name, for whom he had great respect and who taught him European methods of farming. Philemon was a most diligent worker – diligence in business was one of his principles. His fields and flocks were most carefully cultivated, and the best of methods employed. His family were taught to do likewise. As Rev. A. B. Ndebele said of his father, “Philemon set a good example before his family, in his private reading of the Scriptures, in his family worship, and in his praying with them, and for them. He had no interest whatsoever in the local superstitions. He never consulted a witch doctor. He did not wish to hear anything about them.”
Philemon acted as kraal-head and assisted the African chiefs. When any man complained of unkind treatment received from a white man one of his responses often was, “The Lord knows all about it.” He was offered the post of Councillor in the local administration office, but he refused to accept it, lest it should interfere with his work in making known the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. “No man can serve two masters,” he said.
When Rev. B. B. Dube was ordained to the ministry and inducted to the charge of the Zenka congregation in October 1978, there was a great deal of terrorist activity in the area. People were being brutally attacked and even murdered. Philemon himself, then an old man, was assaulted and severely beaten. Naturally, Mr Dube was apprehensive about the safety of his family and himself. Philemon and another old elder, Paul Ncube, went to encourage him. “It is a great honour and privilege to be witnessing for Christ in these dark days,” Philemon told the youthful preacher of the gospel. “You are placed here for a purpose. You must fear no man. Only the wicked fleeth when no man pursueth.” With such words the good old men encouraged and strengthened their young minister. Mr Dube, in turn, had the highest regard and love for them. In one report to the Synod he spoke of them as “the very backbone and strength, humanly speaking, of the Zenka congregation.”
When Philemon was nearing the end of his life, in autumn 1979, many of the congregation wished him to speak to them once more, perhaps for the last time. On a Thursday morning, when the weekly prayer meeting was held, they gathered outside his bedroom window. Philemon had a text ready on which to speak, but he did not have the strength to do so. He asked the old elder, Paul Ncube to speak, quoting to him the text he had in mind: “For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens,” 2 Corinthians 5:1.
On Saturday, Philemon spoke to Paul Ncube, and exhorted him to continue in the work of preaching, to be faithful to the Church and to those doctrines they had been taught and knew so well. As he approached his end he advised his wife to be firm with the young members of the family, and to ensure that the Lord’s Day would be kept in their home as it had been until then.
On Sabbath morning, Philemon was taken away to his heavenly home and eternal rest. At the funeral, the ministers and elders noted that there was an exceptionally large crowd of young men present, about four hundred. They then realised that half of that number were probably terrorists. However, all was quiet, and attention was paid as Rev. B. B. Dube addressed the crowd. He spoke on a verse that he had heard Philemon speak on, many years before, and which had greatly impressed him at the time: “For I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day,” 2 Timothy 1:12. The day of his death found Philemon Ndebele, as to his soul, kept to the end of his journey by the Keeper of Israel. On the great day of the Lord he will be numbered among those of whom Scripture says, “And they shall be mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels,” Malachi 3:17.