06 May Meet Philemon Mswanyama
By Ephraim Nkonya
Philemon is a straight shooter and a face value man – what you see is what you get. It was sometimes embarrassing and scary to hear how he freely discussed with ease his adolescence silly years and the mess he made. I kept asking him, are you sure, you want this to be in your profile? His answers were equally straight shots – “yes, yes, what you heard is my old self; I am now a new person in Christ. Paul said the same thing: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Right from his childhood, Philemon’s life is marked with spiritual and social challenges – out of which emerged a strong and Godly man, just like what Job said “But he knoweth the way that I take: when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold.” Job 23:10, KJV. A fine gold has come from these challenges and made Philemon one of the most successful African digital evangelists. He founded the Advent Broadcast Network (ABN) Facebook TV – which has over seven hundred thousand followers and growing. Digital evangelism is only one of many things that Philemon does. Welcome to Philemon’s story, but please put on your seatbelts as you take the choppy ride of Philemon’s story. But don’t chicken out, the story has a happy ending. Join Mark Twain who said, “Happy is he who forgets (ignores?) what cannot be changed.”
Philemon was born in Ndono village, Uyui district, in Tabora region – which is in Northwestern Tanzania. His paternal grandparents migrated from Burundi in 1929 – a year before the cycle of ethnic conflicts started. The Ndono village residents warmly received the immigrants so much that they permanently settled in Tanzania. Little Philemon was born in Tanzania and he grew up among Burundian refugee families – who came after the ethnic conflicts started. As a child, Philemon had some very special calling that amazed everybody. Everybody – young and old – asked him to pray for them – by simply saying nyongele – a Tutsi word, which literary means “boost me.” The noble intercessory prayer service revealed his spiritual calling early on. Over time, his nickname became “Nyongele” and it dwarfed his real name Philemon. Solomon in the Bible says, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6, KJV). Nyongele’s father was a Moravian church evangelist and a prayer warrior. He led prayers in the evening and ensured that his kids go to church every Sunday. William DuBois is right, “Children learn more from what you are than what you teach them.” As this story will show, the father’s influence put wings on Nyongele to fly and evangelize the whole world. True as Hodding Carter said “There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings.”
Nyongele’s mother was not a religious person and did not contribute significantly to her kids’ faith. Drinking alcohol and using snuff were her major social challenges. But, mama’s behavioral challenges didn’t go in vain, as “there is so much to learn from failure than from success” (Michael Bassey Johnson). Nyongele learnt spiritual lesson by watching the bad influence of drinking and snuffing on his mama. It was an object lesson to see how drinking affected his mom’s judgement when under the influence of alcohol and how smoking and snuffing affected her health. Mama also had her brighter side. She taught her kids to work hard and to live with and care for other people. Mama also taught her kids to do all chores regardless of their sex. Boys were taught to cook, grind corn, and wash dishes – chores that are traditionally done by girls. Mama also helped everyone who needed her help. She groomed Nyongele into becoming a generous person and to never give up when facing challenges.
Philemon’s Troubled Adolescence
With Nyongele’s strong spiritual life background, one would expect an upright and virtuous life during his adolescence. Philemon completed primary school in Ndono and moved to Mwanza Region to live with his brother and that is where He became a Seventh Day Adventist believer. He was baptized in 1989 on Lake Victoria in an evangelism campaign – which was conducted by the Pastor Robert Taylor – an American Pastor who was the Tanzania Union President.
Philemon went Kahunda secondary school in Mwanza and this is where he took a different path in his spiritual life. He went through the riotous youth life, where he did all silly things that the youth do. He smoked weed and cigarettes, consumed an illicit local alcohol (Gongo). He joined a weed gang who had a ghetto kijiwe (hangout place) where they smoked and trash-talked all other friends who were not in their “cool” gang. They would get high and do all bad things. Philemon was an active leader of the weed gang and they gave him a “cool” nickname “Mswazi” – which is derived from his last name Mswanyama.
After graduating from high school, he returned to Mwanza City. He continued with these bad habits, and no one in the family knew he was a weed smoker. They only knew that he was a smoker and they prodded him to quit smoking and go to church more, but they failed and gave up.
On January 1st, 1994 – which was a Saturday, unexpectedly Mswazi decided to go to church. His goal was just to go and see what people would say. On the way, all his weed gang friends laughed at him and made all sorts of jokes. He arrived at the church and sat outside, and people who knew him were staring at him in disbelief. Mswazi was deeply moved by the sermon and other services. The next Sabbath he went to church – ignoring the ridicule, jokes and laughter along the way. Mswazi made great spiritual progress, joined the church choir, and later became a Sabbath school leader. But, the devil wasn’t done with him yet. Despite his bold steps of ignoring the ridicule of his kijiwe friends, he still felt embarrassed to wear choir uniforms. He frequently got into a quarrel with his choir leaders for not wearing a uniform. In some occasions, he was prevented from singing because he didn’t wear uniforms.
Then came a big evangelism campaign led by Pastor Henry Mhando – which was held at “Viwanja vya Furahisha” – a popular stadium in Mwanza. He was supposed to sing in the choir at Pastor Mhando’s evangelistic event. Trouble was, he was supposed to wear the choir uniform, he felt very embarrassed to walk to the stadium in uniforms fearing his weed friends would see him in choir uniforms and make fun of him. Mswazi boldly put on his uniforms and walked to Viwanja Vya Furahisha and served. He eventually stopped going to the ghetto hangouts and became a humble young man that surprised even more his gang members. His ghetto friends found that their ridicule and jokes weren’t effective. They slowly started retreating from him and felt guilty in his presence. From that point, Philemon became an active Adventist church member at Kirumba SDA church and started to regularly attend church and participate in the youth activities.
Professional and Career Development
Before going to secondary school where his spiritual life took a sharp turn, Philemon naturally dreamt of being a pastor. This was an expected plan given his Nyongele roots. But the rowdy life in the secondary school period changed his noble plan. During the period where he had his ghetto weed friends, he regarded pastoral duties as an invitation to perpetual poverty, which he would not like to live in. But, God always has a way of bringing back wayward laborers back to the fold. After completing secondary school, he did not have any job and experienced abject poverty. Because of the hardships of life in Mwanza, Philemon moved to Kibaha.
He kept his Adventist faith and tried everything possible to remain faithful. During this desperate time, he sought to have a wife to help him weather through the storm. But, being jobless, poor and young isn’t the right time and situation to look for a wife. Philemon prayed hard to His faithful God to guide him do the right things and get a virtuous wife that Solomon talks about in Proverbs 31:10-31. He fell in love with a girl in his local church who had another well-heeled fiancé. Surprisingly, the girl chose to get married to Philemon – who was then a pauper – with only one shirt, one pair of pants and shoes. A popular Swahili slang for such lean wardrobe is kauka nikuvae – which literary means “get dry so I can put you on.” The Swahili slang means, when you wash the only shirt or pair of pants you have, you need to wait for it to get dry before you could put it on and go out. The girl had a job but was not well-paying job. She was a strong believer in true and unconditional love. One day, Philemon was surprised to see her fiancée bring him a bag of clothes for him. But, she failed to buy pants because she did not know Philemon’s waist size and she was afraid of asking him. The Kauka nikuvae wardrobe problem was solved and Philemon was deeply touched with what his fiancée did for him.
They got married, but life got exceedingly difficult and they both felt the Lord had thrown them away. Even getting food was not easy, and worse still, his wife conceived – making prompting the couple into panic. How will they afford life with a new baby while they are struggling to even feed themselves? They fasted and prayed for seven days – asking God to change their life since pauper life with a baby would be unbearable. They also asked God to tell them what He wanted them to do. A day before the end of the seven-day prayer period, his wife delivered a baby boy and named him Israel. The next day was a Sabbath and Philemon went to church not knowing that it was a week of prayer at his local church. The speaker was Pastor Francis Katengu who was then the stewardship director of the Eastern Tanzania Conference.
Pastor Francis Katengo gave a sermon and asked people to serve and join the ministry. A soft voice told Philemon that, “You have asked for seven days, and I will tell you what to do.” Tears began flowing down his cheeks and people sitting next to him wondered why he was crying. The voice continued to whisper “you asked for seven days I chose you to work for Me.” He didn’t like it because this would make him poor the rest of his life.
After the sermon, the elders of the church took him aside and asked Pastor Katengu to speak with Philemon, who shared with the Pastor what the Holy Spirit was telling him. The pastor told him to heed the soft voice and if he doesn’t, he would not succeed. He agreed and joined the Tanzania Adventist College (TAC) in 2001 to study theology. TAC is now University of Arusha. Philemon was self-sponsored and it was difficult to pay school fees and taking care of his family. After three years at TAC, Philemon decided to take a break and work for some few years to raise money for his tuition and family. TAC granted him a break and in 2004, the Eastern Conference employed and posted him to Kondoa district to serve as a district pastor – a position he served from 2004-09.
Kondoa is one of the Adventist church un-entered places in Tanzania since over two-thirds of the people are Muslims. Philemon came determined to make a big impact in Kondoa. The Holy Spirit again encouraged him to build a new Adventist school – Kondoa Adventist Primary School (KAPS) – which would be an innovative way of getting the Muslim kids to know the Sabbath. His second plan was to build a church because there was no church building in Kondoa town. But, he made all these noble plans without significant consultation with the conference. He started fundraising and contacted TAUS to support the construction of the classrooms for KAPS. TAUS gave Philemon support, and KAPS was established. Philemon also received support from sister Grace Momadi from New Jersey to build churches and set up evangelists in various parts of Kondoa district.
On the church building, Philemon prayed hard and God answered his prayers – allowing him to complete church construction in a short time. The young pastor showed dynamism and uncorked drive to work for the Lord. In the five years that he served in Kondoa, a school and church were built – in addition to opening new branches in various places outside Kondoa township.
Beyond lack of coordination with the conference on church and school building, Philemon did something bad that made the conference stop his ministerial services in Kondoa. He was moved to Temeke SDA primary school to serve as a teacher. The rocky relationship with conference and the bad thing he did in Kondoa led Philemon to decide that he would not be a pastor again. But, he remained dedicated to serving the Lord and learning from his past mistakes. Jesus wasn’t done with him yet.
Philemon and Prophet Jonah Share the Same Fate
Philemon applied for pastoral studies at Oakwood University and got admitted. But, after studying for the first semester Philemon attempted to do what Prophet Jonah did – to run away from pastoral services. He decided to study Information Technology in Business Software – which he believed was very lucrative in the United States. While studying at Oakwood University, Philemon backslided again and stopped going to church. When he graduated in 2015, he was sure to get a well-paying job right away since the IT industry was booming. He was always fasting with prayers for God to give him an IT job. He always had the confidence to do well in job interviews but struggled getting a well-paying IT job.
After doing numerous unsuccessful interviews, he was offered a job as a Quality Controller at a large hospital equipment company for $17 an hour. He never thanked God for getting such a job since he regarded this as a part-time job as he waits for God to give him a well-paying IT job, which he expected to receive $60 to $90 per hour.
Because he ignored the Quality control job, he didn’t care to go AWOL due to conflicts with the numerous job interviews. He was eventually and life became very difficult yet again – forcing him to find regular crappy jobs to allow him pay bills. One of such jobs was at Walmart, in which he earned $8 per hour. The Walmart job was a hard labor job – which involved moving big water barrels and drink boxes. This was similar to Samson’s hard labor job he did in the Philistines’ prison – of pushing heavy millstone round, grinding grain. He kept thinking about his future since the jobs at Wal-Mart aren’t what he was trained for. He was working side by side with people with high school diploma or lower level of education and this tortured him mentally.
He fasted asking God to help him land a well-paying job in IT. At the same time, he kept hearing a voice that he has left God’s sheep. Sometimes he made a fasting prayer, praying after every hour for God to give him an IT job. One night he heard a gentle voice saying read the book of Jonah. The turning point came when he did an interview for a good job – which would pay $90/hour. He passed the interview and the interviewers showed that they would hire him. Few days later, he received one heart-wrenching phone call. The company Human Resource person informed him that he did very well in the interview, but for reasons, which they also don’t know, the company would not hire him. After the phone call, Philemon froze and got numb. He was confused and kept asking himself, is this a replay of Prophet Jonah’s runaway story? He asked God to guide him on what he should do next. Should he continue looking for IT jobs and abandon his ministerial calling?
The same night that he received the heart-wrenching HR phone call, he heard the soft voice of the Holy Spirit calling him to serve the Lord. This time, the Holy Spirit was very specific with what The Lord would Philemon to do. The Hold Spirit told him to start an Facebook TV. He showed him everything and Philemon woke up and turned on his computer and saw what he had been shown in a dream and how Facebook could be used to reach people all over the world. He fell to his knees and asked God to guide him on how to implement his dream. Jonah’s prayer in the whale’s belly (Jonah 2:2-8 NKJ) was:
“I cried out to the LORD because of my affliction, And He answered me.
“Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, And You heard my voice. For You cast me into the deep, Into the heart of the seas, And the floods surrounded me; All Your billows and Your waves passed over me. Then I said, ‘I have been cast out of Your sight; Yet I will look again toward Your holy temple.’ The waters surrounded me, even to my soul; The deep closed around me; Weeds were wrapped around my head. I went down to the [a]moorings of the mountains; The earth with its bars closed behind me forever; Yet You have brought up my life from the pit, O LORD, my God.”
Though Philemon didn’t recite word for word Jonah’s prayer, Philemon knew that “The earth with its bars closed behind me forever.” He knew one thing, God is patient with him and will never leave him alone. He realized that establishing a Facebook TV station for evangelism will combine his pastoral and IT knowledge into one. He started the ABN Facebook TV station in 2016. But when he informed his friends, they laughed at him saying that he should stop his pipe dreams and focus on doable things.
He thanks his Lord every day since the Facebook TV evangelism grew to more than 700,000 followers in only few years. He has been facing challenges of buying equipment and software to run his Facebook TV station, but he has always fasted and gotten support from unexpected sources. For example, he needed a Camera with software for his studio, the total cost of which was $ 10,000. God did an amazing miracle through one bad video – which he shared on Facebook. The Lord used this bad video to inspire people to donate $10,000. He is the administrator of website and TV and his IT knowledge is helping immensely running the day-to-day operations.
God in His goodness brought in two pastors (Pr. Kennedy Vanterpool and Dennis Barrow) who offered much needed support to the ABN ministry. Every month they have been helping to pay for the rent of the building where ABN Studio is located. A few days later after the TV Dream, a believer called to tell him they had started a church and asked him to be one of the pastors of the church. He said he was incredibly grateful to God for his privilege because there are so many pastors in the United States who do not have churches to minister to, but he has been given a church. They started the church with Pr. Mathew Makau. The church was established in few months to become one of the churches in the Texas conference. In its infancy, the church in 2018 sponsored the Ambassadors of Christ choir to come to US and minister at his new church and churches in the US. This was done only by faith, and the Lord helped them succeed in bringing the famous choir to US.
In his ministry he has witnessed the power of prayers. There are many miracles the Lord has done through prayers. Below is an abbreviated list of major miracles:
- Pastor Philemon’s first child, Israel, was five years old when he had to undergo a nasal surgery to remove flesh which had swollen causing difficulty breathing. Because they did not have the money to pay for the treatment, Pastor Henry Mhando told all the people at TAC College during the week of prayer, those in need to write a letter to God, in faith Philemon and his wife wrote a letter to God asking for the healing of their child. Prayers were made and the child recovered from that time. This year, the boy turned 22 years old and is in good and vibrant health.
- A Ghanaian sister who got in touch with Pr. Philemon through the ABN prayer warriors team, sent an email asking him to pray to God for her to have a baby. The reason for the desperate plea was that her husband was about to divorce her because she was childless. Pr. Philemon told her to fast together for three days, but after the three-day prayers and fasting, they lost contact. But, after 12 months Pr. Philemon received an email from the sister saying “The Lord has given me a baby boy.”
- When he was in Kibaha district and about to get married, heavy rains began to fall on all parts of the Coast. This was El Niño rains that brought great disaster to the people and their property. As a farmer, Philemon relied on selling his vegetables to buy a wedding suit and other preparations. Philemon fasted and prayed for three days, after which the rain stopped falling completely in the area where he lived. People were wondering why it was raining in other parts of the Coast but there was no rain in his community and Philemon crops were not destroyed. The reason for this was God answered Philemon’s prayers and fasting.
- One Month before Philemon came to US in August 2009, he was scheduled to be a speaker at a camp meeting in Mtwara region, Thieves stole all his 500 chicken – which he was planning to sell and get air fare to the US. After receiving the bad news through a text message from His wife, Philemon immediately went to his hotel and did what Prophet Jeremiah did – angrily yelling at God “O Lord, you deceived me, and I was deceived!” (Jeremiah 20:7). Philemon angrily shouted at God telling Him to return the money for the stolen chickens. After the camp meeting, Philemon left Mtwara and headed home and on Monday morning, he went to City Center to look for money and he called a stranger to ask for financial help. The man said he doesn’t know him. Philemon introduced himself and told the stranger that he is a pastor, and wanted to go to the United States for studies, but his chicken were stolen. Surprisingly, the stranger directed him to where they would meet. Philemon in faith went to see the stranger, who gave him the same amount of money he would earned by selling his chickens!!!
The Sky is Not the Limit – Philemon’s Future Plans
Philemon is planning to expand the subscription of the ABN Facebook TV to more churches. He sees both local churches and the General Conference has not yet fully exploited the power of digital evangelism. His Facebook TV is reaching more than any mega church on earth and he has not stopped from praying and dreaming big. He is asking people to pray and support him to expand his digital missionary.
Pastor Philemon Mswanyama preaching through ABN Facebook TV in Swahili and Wilson Nyakundi translating into English
He plans to have special ABN programs for nurturing the youth and other groups. He needs support from all people who believe in the Great Commission that Jesus Christ gave us, minutes before he left this earth. He invites anyone who feels tugging of the Holy Spirit to support this ministry to reach out to him. He believes the Lord will make more people to support his mission and help him achieve his dream of expanding God’s mission of reaching more people on Earth.