Soweto Township, South Africa. If you’ve heard of it, it was probably in a negative light. Murders, rapes, beatings, riots happen every day in this suburb of Johannesburg.
But not all is brutality and fear. There are pockets of peace. Every school day you’ll find LDS students who meet together in seminary. As they pray, sing, and study together, they gain the strength to carry on.
One typical seminary class in Soweto is held in a room that combines a kitchen, living room, and eating area. At least seven students and a teacher huddle elbow-to-elbow around an oilcloth-covered table.
The teacher nurses a knife wound in her back. Gladys Saiah is not much older than her students. She was running an errand for her mother in an unfamiliar part of town, when she was attacked and stabbed by a group of men. She and her sister were allowed to go without further injury.
“As my sister and I walked home,” she says, “I told Ellen we must first thank Heavenly Father for sparing our lives. We did, and then, arising from our knees, I asked Ellen, ‘Now will you please clean my back?’”
But the dangers of daily living are pushed into the background once the opening song and prayer start seminary. Class begins with scripture mastery, and each student recites a scripture word for word.
“And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them” (Moses 7:18).
“But the Lord said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature, because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).
Soweto seminary students know the Lord helps them through the scriptures. Lucky Ndhiela knows his faith spared him a severe beating.
“One day our school teacher was very angry with our class,” says Lucky. “He said he had explained a science principle to us, and the other students said he had not. A still, small voice whispered in my ear, ‘You know it, Lucky—the teacher did teach us that.’
“So I raised my hand and said in front of the whole class, ‘You did teach us that.’ I felt so happy to say it.
“But the whole class shouted, ‘He did NOT!’ The teacher became very angry and started to give them all hidings, one by one. I sat near the back of the class, and while he was busy punishing the students in front, I bowed my head and began to pray.
“I remembered my scripture mastery, Proverbs 3:5–6, and said to myself, ‘Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.’ [Prov. 3:5–6]
“When the teacher came to my desk, his voice changed. His face changed. He said, ‘Lucky is praying to his God. I forgive him.’ He did not punish me, nor any others that day. That is how I know it is important to apply the scriptures in my life. My prayer was answered!”
Studying the Old Testament together has great impact on Soweto’s seminary students. Scenes like this one, described by a teacher, Leadh Vilakazi, are not uncommon:
“When we got to the story of Moses, everyone wanted to know everything concerning him. It was a wonderful feeling, as if Moses were among us.
“But the sad moment started when Moses was told he would not be allowed to enter the promised land, after all he had been through, and the faithful heart he had, and the hard work in leading the Israelites.
“‘Oh, what a painful and upsetting thing,’ my students grieved to me. And it was even a greater blow when the scriptures said Moses died. Everyone’s heart was moved as if he had departed from us, and it was silent for a moment.
“When I looked at the students’ faces, tears were about to fall. Some of them looked down—they could not look at me. I heard one of the students say, ‘We now know that we had such a wonderful leader.’
“Another said, ‘Why don’t we sing “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.’”
“Then came another voice. ‘Oh yes—just to thank our Heavenly Father for our beloved prophet for the last time.’ And so we sang, with our tears.”
Seminary student Girly Mbuli explains how her faith and love of the scriptures saved her from a terrible situation.
“One day my friend Tiny Gugu and I had to go to Zondi to take some books to another girl. On our way back we saw a gang of boys. Gangs here rape girls, steal cars, do everything horrible. We started to run, but it was too late.
“The boys faced us. They had weapons. They made us go up on a hill and meant to do awful things to us. On the way up the hill, I was saying a prayer to my Heavenly Father. I don’t remember which scriptures I tried to say, but I kept thinking of them. I asked for help to be calm and not afraid. I felt peace come into my heart.
“When you are on top of that hill, you can see everything. The boys looked down and asked where I was staying. I pointed to Jabulane and something told me to say I was with my grandmother and my friend Lindiwe.
“The leader looked at me and said, ‘You are not afraid. Let them go!’ I later found out the brother of my friend Lindiwe is the boss of this gang, and he stays in the house of my grandmother. That is why they let us go free.
“When I tell this story to people, they refuse to believe we survived. But I know I did and I know why. It was because of my faith in Heavenly Father. I know that Isaiah 1:18 can be true for those guilty gang boys, if they will repent: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.” [Isa. 1:18]
Many people would be amazed at Girly’s charitable attitude. They would view Soweto as a truly godforsaken place. But through study, prayer, and faith, Soweto seminary students know better. The gospel of Jesus Christ gives them hope, confidence, courage, love.
“I want to tell everyone not to forget their Heavenly Father wherever you are,” says Girly. “He won’t forget you. He didn’t forget me.”