Senatle, Harold Benjamin
African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME Church)
An outstanding African church leader, Harold Senatle was the first black African bishop in the USA-based African Methodist Episcopal Church. In his ministry he was noted for his capacity to heal rifts within congregations and for his fund-raising abilities. He also established new mission fields for the church. As a bishop in the AME Church from 1984 until his retirement in 2000, he served all the countries in Southern Africa. At one time he had the honor of being president of the council of bishops of the AME Church, a position occupied by the most senior bishop in the church.
Harold Benjamin Senatle was born in 1926 in the Western Transvaal town of Christiana to Isaac and Merriam Senatle. His father died when he was seven years old and he was raised by his mother. As a young boy he attended the local Anglican Church. He counts the Anglican priest who came from Bloemhof every month for services, the Rev. D. K. Rakale, as a role model for his vocation later on. Young Harold Senatle became an altar boy at the local Anglican congregation, and was involved in Sunday school work. He so impressed the Rev. Rakale that he suggested Harold attend the Anglican seminary of St. Peter's at Rossetenville. However, Senatle decided to go back to his AME roots, where his mother was a staunch member and one of the leaders of the local Women Missionary Society.
Senatle regards his mother as a great inspiration to him. Whenever clergy came to visit the outstation, they always dined at the Senatle home. Another role model Senatle speaks of is an old catechist at the Anglican congregation, who impressed him greatly with his piety as well as his dedication to pastoral work.
Training and early career
After completing his matric qualification and a short stint as a clerk, Senatle received a call to the ministry from the local AME church. In 1946 he was sent to the Wilberforce R. R. School of Religion in Evaton where he trained for the ministry until 1949 when he was ordained. He first served as a minister under trial at Bloemfontein in the Free State for a year, after which he was sent to Brandfort, also in the Free State. He spent seven years ministering at this congregation.
In the meantime, Senatle married Anna Gasengake who he described as "a great spiritual power behind me." She sang soprano in the choir where Senatle sang tenor. They recently celebrated fifty-eight years of marriage (2004). Senatle notes that in all those years "she never took any fed-up leave." Their marriage was blessed with five children: three boys and two girls. One of his sons, Thabo, followed into his father's footsteps and went into the ministry, also lecturing part-time at the local seminary. The eldest son, Pitso, is a professor in Mathematical Science at Atlanta State University in the USA.
After seven years at Brandfort Senatle was promoted to the post of a presiding elder in the AME Church. He was then sent to Mt. Sinnai, Edenburg, for two years. He spent two years at his next mission station at Mt. Pisgah, Bethlehem and two more years at Mt. Nebo in Welkom. After that he spent fourteen years ministering at Mt. Zion, Bloemfontein. By this time he was superintendent. His next move was prompted by his promotion to the position of administrative assistant to the Black American bishops who were assigned to South Africa. From 1978 on, he assisted bishops Harrison Bryant, Frederick James, G. Dewey Robinson, Donald Ming, and John Hunter over the next seven years, at Sharpeville in the old Transvaal province.
In Kansas City, Missouri, USA, at the quadrennial general conference of the highest body of the African Methodist Church, a new chapter in Senatle's ministry started when he was elected bishop in the church, the first black African to be elected to that high office. The first South African was Bishop Herman Francis Gow of Cape Town, a colored. Senatle was appointed to the 18th episcopal district (diocese), an area which included Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, and Botswana. During his first four year term between 1984 and 1988, he also had to head the 19th district, that included the Free State, the Eastern Transvaal, and Northern and Western Transvaal, due to the death of the bishop for that area, the Rt. Rev. John Hunter. Thus, from 1985 on Senatle served as bishop for both the 18th and the 19th district.
In 1988, at the end of his first term, and again in 1922, Senatle was appointed to the 19th district. In 1996 at the end of his second term in that same district, he was transferred to the 15th district, which included the Cape, the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Namibia, and Angola. Senatle is especially proud of the fact that he initiated the establishment of Angola as a missionary district. In 2000, after four years at the helm in that district Senatle retired.
The adulation he enjoys among AME members is demonstrated by the number of chapels named after him in all the districts where he has served. Although now retired, Senatle remains active, assisting incoming bishops and performing other pastoral functions.
Senatle built the headquarters for the AME 19th district in what was originally a small church building at the corner of Philipps and Anderson streets in Johannesburg. When he was transferred to the 19th district Senatle saw a need for both a residence and headquarters for the church. After negotiations with the local church that owned the building, Senatle started a fund-raising campaign. His main aim was to impress on the district that local money must be used to build the headquarters. He emphasized that the money had to be raised entirely from the black people of Africa. As a result of this spirit of self-reliance, the sum of three million rand was raised. Located in a four-storey building situated at the corner of Philipps and Anderson streets in Johannesburg, the headquarters opened in 1991. The bottom part is used as a church building, the middle two floors are rented out to local businesses and the upper floor is where the various offices of the headquarters of the 19th district are located.
Senatle also spearheaded the restoration of Wilberforce College. When church schools were forced to close because of the Bantu Education Act in 1955, the AME did not sell the building as other churches did. During a fund-raising campaign undertaken with Bishop Ming in Washington D.C. in the USA, Senatle convinced donors to invest in the restoration of Wilberforce as a community college. The funding for this came mostly from the Service and Development Agency of the AME Church (the SEDA). The first allocation of 1.2 million rand was paid out, and the newly re-vamped Wilberforce Community College opened in 1999, offering extension training and computer literacy, among other courses. The principal is an American, Mrs. Joyce G. Mashabela, while the vice-principal is a South African, Mr. Ike T. Makume.
Senatle is very proud of the fact that the AME church now has three African-born bishops: Rt. Rev. Dr. Wilfred Messia of the 19th district, formerly principal of the local seminary, the Rt. Rev. Paul J. Kawimbe of the 17th district, that is mainly in Central Africa, and the Rt. Rev. David Daniels who is originally from Liberia and who now heads the 14th district that encompasses the West African region.
Senatle will be remembered for his legacy in building the headquarters of the 19th district, for his ministry throughout Southern Africa, and for the spirit of self-reliance which he propagated during his episcopacy. He has been a pioneer African bishop who showed the way for other African-born bishops to follow.
1. Interview with Bishop Senatle at Roshnee on September 3, 2004.
2. Biographical notes from http://www.clearlakeame.com/current_bishops.htm. Accessed October 4, 2004.
3. The AME Church in South Africa in 2004, http://members.tripod.com/~cjvp/chap7.html. Accessed September 13, 2004.
4. News item on July 6, 2004, "Eight New AME Bishops Include 3 Africans" in http://www.duluthsuperior.com/mld/sunherald/9092083.htm?template+contentModulkes/pri. Accessed September 9, 2004.
This story, submitted in January 2004, was written by Fr. Abraham Mojalefa Lieta of the
School of Theology, University of KwaZulu-Natal, while researching the role of the African clergy in the Anglican diocese of Bloemfontein (1884-1963). Dr. Philippe Denis, professor of the History of Christianity at the University of KwaZulu-Natal is the DACB liaison coordinator and writing supervisor.