In the village of Ga-Mothiba in rural Limpopo, James Mamabolo and his wife Rosinq née Selepe’s home was well known by the community. Their house was situated along the main road and the bus stop was just outside their gate. There were always visitors stopping by and commuters who needed shelter from the rain, shade from the harsh sun or a glass of water.
Young Richard Selepe helped his grandmother with chores, to welcome guests and to make a quick trip to the store if anything was needed.
“We lived in a traditional hut, built with mud and cow dung which we collected as kids and I learnt to cook and clean from a young age,” he says. “My grandmother was a strong woman, she stood out because she was light skinned, loving, kind and a disciplinarian. She taught me self-respect, to believe in myself and to fear God.”
Religion was central to Richard’s upbringing as his grandfather James was the founder of the now nationally established Zionist church.
Growing up without a father
“For the first 15 years of my life, my grandparents told me my father had been hit by a train and died, but the truth was my father was a married man and I was born from his affair with my mom. The nature of their relationship would bring disrepute to our family and the church so his identity was kept a secret,” explains Richard.
Growing up without his father made life difficult for Richard, who says there were certain milestones he went through as a boy that he wished he could have shared with him.
“I developed an inferiority complex because I was often surrounded by other young people who knew both their parents. I discovered at a later stage that the story of a dad being hit by a train was told to children when adults were hiding a man’s identity.”
Richard says when he was 15 his grandparents took him to his father’s home to give him the chance to decide if he would accept him into his life. The experience changed Richard’s life for the better because he developed a good relationship with his father and his three sisters from his father’s marriage.
“My dad and I spent a lot of time together, we spoke about a lot of things, attended gatherings together and I developed a fairly normal relationship with my siblings, even though we knew we were different,” he adds.
Calling into ministry
In high school Richard started spending time with a group of boys who encouraged their peers to skip school, be disruptive, and target people they suspected of being witch doctors. “I joined them for a bit out of intrigue but came to realise it was not the life I wanted to live,” he says.
Instead, in Grade 10 Richard felt the calling to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and become a pastor.
“My grandmother was relieved when I told her I wanted to go into ministry because that is what she had been praying for and she was very encouraging. By the time I was in Matric, I was very active in church and my intentions were clear,” he says.
Time in the USA
In 1991 Richard attended seminary at International Assemblies of God and graduated with a Diploma in Bible and Theology. In 1999 he took up an opportunity to travel to Oklahoma in the USA, where he studied Literacy and Evangelism.
“Seminary opened my life to different people and cultures and being in the USA was an incredible experience, it made me question my life in South Africa. Everything in the USA was focused on the success of the individual and where I come from in the rural areas, everything was focused on community. The food we ate was different and I met people who were loving, kind and generous. I loved it,” he adds.
Respected community leader
Richard became an ordained minister of the Gospel in February 1992 and was later installed as a bishop in 2011 because of the work he did providing ongoing support and mentorship to religious leaders in his community.
Today he is the leader of the Victory Fellowship Church and the founder of the Limpopo Ministers’ Fraternal.
“I was introduced to Heartlines by a fellow church leader who told me Heartlines was looking for a rep in Polokwane. I was connected to the Heartlines team and introduced to all the programmes. I have found that all the programmes are relevant to the needs of my community and fellow church leaders,” he says.
“I decided to do What’s Your Story? in my home with my friends and it had a huge impact. I have also incorporated Heartlines’ values-based teaching in my sermons.”
Richard says being part of a network of church leaders and government officials at the office of the Public Protector, the Commission of Gender Equality, and Childline, means that there are many opportunities to share Heartlines’ work.
“When we come together we can do much more and take Heartlines programs further. I look forward to using Heartlines programs to impact the government, schools, families and churches.”