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Norwich curate's change of heart leads to Heartsease

The journey from a campfire in Uganda to become a church minister on a Norwich housing estate has been full of unexpected twists and turns for Zimbabwean Isaac Sibanda. Jenny Seal reports.

Rev Isaac Sibanda planned to pursue a high-earning career until one night sitting around a campfire in Uganda he realized God was calling him to become a vicar. In June Isaac was ordained at Norwich Cathedral and now the 35-year old is a Curate (assistant minister) of St Francis Church serving the Heartsease estate

Growing up in Zimbabwe Isaac's parents took him to church, worked hard and sent him to private school. Then in 2002, with fear and violence increasing in the country, Isaac’s family emigrated to England.

“I was this 18-year old African boy who had gone to private school and spoke the Queen’s English landing in Liverpool of all places!” he said. “That was a culture shock. I remember saying, ‘what is that language?’. I couldn’t understand what people were saying!”

The church played an important role in helping the teenager adjust. “You are in a new place, a new country, you are trying to figure out who you are. I got stuck into the youthwork at church and that was the start of trying to reinvent myself.”

He chose to study International Business at university in Manchester and ended up being President of his Christian Union. But while his friends talked about going into ordained ministry with the Church of England he had other plans.

“I couldn’t think of anything worse,” he said laughing. “I was like a) that sounds very boring, b) I want to make a lot of money and have a decent career and c) I am just not cool enough! It was literally the cool kids who were all thinking about getting ordained!”

He planned to go into finance, but his final year coincided with the financial crisis of 2007-8. “I had a big ‘looking in the mirror’ moment,” he said. “I felt like that’s what I was being prepared to do but I couldn’t make that step. In the US, single mothers were losing their homes. I thought, ‘do I really want to be a part of that?’”

Instead, wanting to help people but still make money, Isaac decided to become a lawyer and started a post-grad law conversion course. It was expensive and proved difficult to do alongside a part-time job. After a year he dropped out.

“I felt like I hit rock bottom,” he said. “I’d done my degree and all of a sudden I hadn’t moved onto the next stage of life. I had nothing to do and I slumped into a depression.”

Someone suggested he volunteered so he did, spending a year with Youth for Christ in The Wirral. It was here he met his wife Rebecca who was studying youthwork at Chester University.

“Rebecca suggested that I apply for a youthwork job and I was offered a 3-year contract with the Methodist Circuit in Cheshire. But in my head, I still wanted to finish off my law degree and get my career back on track. ‘I was like okay Lord, three years it is and then we’ll get back on the career path’.”

Isaac thrived in the role. “It was such a blessing,” he said. “Towards the end of the first year a lot of people started to say, ‘you clearly enjoy this, and we can see God working in your life, have you thought about ordained ministry?’ And I was like ‘no, that’s for cool kids. I’ve got a career plan. I like nice cars. I want to make money’.”

With a group of young people from Nantwich, Isaac was able to organise a mission trip to Uganda. They spent time visiting the charity Kids Club Kampala and then a school in a remote village.  

“Every night we took turns to lead a devotional,” said Isaac. “When it was my turn, I felt really prompted that we should share Communion. In the afternoon I went and bought a sweet bun and something that resembled Vimto. That night sitting around a campfire I read some liturgy and we all shared the bread and the Vimto. It was beautiful. That was the lightbulb moment for me. I came back and said to Becky, ‘I feel that God is calling me to ministry’. She replied, ‘I knew that all along’. 

“I went from a place of ‘I don’t want to do this’ to feeling God wants me to do this, I want to do this now. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else and it just grew stronger and stronger.”

By this time Rebecca was living in Norfolk having taken a job with the Salvation Army and Isaac moved to be with her. He started the process of applying for ordination with the Diocese of Norwich.

Things went well until Isaac got to the Bishop’s Advisory Panel which assesses candidates for ministerial training.  He was not recommended for ordination. “That was tough,” said Isaac. “All of a sudden you have that moment where you start doubting yourself and God.”

Isaac’s Diocesan Director of Ordinands, who had supported him through the process, advised him not to give up. He had three more interviews with examining chaplains, and just in time for the start of the academic year, the Bishop recommended him for training. He and Rebecca moved to Durham to begin his training at Cranmer Hall.

Unfortunately, Isaac’s time at Cranmer Hall started and ended in hospital. Diagnosed with sickle cell disease at birth, Isaac is periodically hospitalised with pain and other complications. He had a sickle cell crisis in the months before graduating from Durham, and was out of action for almost two months with a chest infection and a lot of pain.

In 2018, Isaac and Rebecca moved back to Norfolk, and he began work at St Francis Church in the middle of the Heartsease estate in north Norwich. Isaac believes his health condition and his setbacks have prepared him well for his current role, giving him more empathy for those within the local community who are in need. “It has changed how I approach people with disability and other limiting factors in life,” he said.

In June 2019, Isaac was ordained as a priest at a ceremony at Norwich Cathedral and he is now the Curate of St Francis Church. “We have a small congregation but we punch above our weight,” Isaac said. “We do so much. We have this great involvement with the community through our lunch club, our growing group for toddlers and their carers, our Community Fridge and our healthy living projects.”

Living with a chronic health condition means that while Isaac takes joy in growing relationships and serving people in the local community, he is also mindful about his energy levels and taking time for his hobbies. Drone photography, flying model airplanes and clay pigeon shooting are among his pastimes. 

“When I fly my model airplanes or if I’m shooting grouse or clays I wear my dog collar, and people smile at me. They probably think it’s weird, but I have some brilliant conversations. People don’t expect a vicar to be walking around with a shotgun,” he said.
Photo: Rev Isaac Sibanda outside St Francis Church at Heartsease in Norwich.

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