Old North Church and the people of Pholela, South Africa have been friends and partners since 2003. In the spring of 2002 Reverend Gideon Khabela, who was on sabbatical teaching at Phillips Exeter Academy, was a guest preacher at Old North. He told of his Zulu people’s suffering. He spoke of their faith in God despite life’s hardships. He spoke of family, friends, and faith. He spoke of a desire to form a relationship with a church here in America.  So we accepted his challenge and planned our first visit to South Africa.

In the summer of 2003 a small band of Old North travelers arrived in the district of Pholela in the region of KwaZulu-Natal, the epicenter of that country’s AIDS pandemic.  We visited some of Rev. Khabela’s twenty-six villages and prayed, sang and danced with the members of his congregation.  As we played with their children, we discovered many opportunities to offer friendship and assistance.  We formalized our relationship, creating the Old North/Pholela Partnership.  Since then, intergenerational groups of ONC members and friends from the Marblehead community have visited Pholela in 2004, 2006, 2009 and  2013.  Our experiences with our Pholela friends have been life changing–they have told us we give them hope for the future, and we have gained so much from knowing them.


The first trip in 2003 was a getting-to know-you experience for everyone. The villagers were gracious, the children and teachers in the creches, or nursery schools, were so pleased to meet us. Our teenagers and the teenagers at the Pholela School became instant friends when they discovered their love of the same music. During our second visit we began to participate in the life of the church as we focused on projects that ONC and Pholela could work on together as partners. When returned for our third visit in 2006, it was obvious that we had become woven into the fabric of their daily lives. We were now family. When we returned to the village of Posane, where we had helped build a church in 2004, it was like old-home week. We prayed with our partners in their new church. And then we ate, sang, and partied! We bring our friends donations of warm clothing. We presented Elders and officials with blankets to keep them warm during the cold South African winter nights infused with the prayers and regards of Old North Church.

Our friends live with AIDS and the HIV-virus everyday.  Rev. Khabela and Evanglist Mbanjwa would drive or walk from village to village to bring comfort to the suffering. In the villages we visited we saw many little children and their grandparents because their parents have died. We had the honor of attending funeral services for a young man and for a young mother who died of AIDS. We were touched to be included in their grieving.

children pholela

We were saddened by the death of Rev. Khabela in September of  2007.  However, visits with Old North family members and friends with Pholela continued in 2009 and 2013 when we were hosted by the new minister, Rev. Simon Mbanjwa.

Over the years, we helped to build a church, worked with health care leaders, discussed the problems of rural villages with some of the tribal Chiefs, created a documentary on HIV/AIDS produced  by Susan Walker, A Tale of Two Teens, and established Heifer International sustainable  projects in two villages.  Large donations of clothing went to all  twenty-six villages that comprise the congregation and we put shoes on  the feet of little children and wrapped them in warm coats. Old North  provided funds to the schools for scholarships, teachers’ salaries and  equipment.  Fields of crops and school properties are now protected  from roaming cattle because we paid for much-needed fencing. We put  blankets around the shoulders of elderly women and planted their  gardens.  Working with Boston-based South Africa Partners, many books  were distributed to children in schools where previously none existed.

Women sent their children to school with the money they  earned from our sales of their Zulu beaded jewelry and pillow covers.   And we’ve had great fun playing with the littlest children enjoying  the toys and games we contributed to their nursery schools.

During our most recent visit in 2013, we assisted the local branches of the Pholela Congregation to clear construction sites so they can both reconstruct damaged church buildings and build new ones.  The new pastor, Rev. Simon Mbanjwa, drives to all twenty-six villages over rugged mountainous roads to care for his congregation but some branches only get Sunday services about seven times a year. He has inspired and motivated the congregation to increase their annual fundraising efforts so that four new churches can be built in the most remote areas.  It will take some time to do that and we hope to help them achieve their goal to complete the buildings.

Old North Church walks in Christian Partnership with the Pholela Congregation in South Africa in friendship, faith and hope for unity and equality in a divided world.




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